A Hobart gardener has 87 amaryllis bulbs and counting
Like many gardeners looking for a little color around the holiday, she was picking up a pair of inexpensive flowering bulbs at Christmas. The reward for potting them was large, exciting tropical flowers on sturdy stems on a plant you can grow on your windowsill – in the middle of winter. Unless it’s love?
When she started seeing different types of amaryllis in plant catalogs selling for $16 a bulb, she decided she couldn’t get rid of her plant after it bloomed. Not when you can, with a little patience and a minimum of fuss, stick with it and try to convince it to flourish year after year.
To say he succeeded would be an understatement. In January, she placed 87 bulbs in 57 pots — a collection that continues to grow every year.
“I’ve got to learn to get rid of some of these things. I’ve given them away,” says Freeman, who has been gardening extensively with her husband, Dr. Timothy Freeman, on their 22 acres in Hobart since 1986. It really became an obsession. I gave them up.’ It’s kind of like potato chips. Once you have one, you’ve got to have more, you know?
It has more than 40 species that bloom in different colors from red, burgundy, pink, coral, white and even yellow. Traditional favorites like “Red Lion” are part of the mix, but there are also more whimsical songs, including “Dancing Queen,” “Black Pearl” and “Blushing Bride.” Some of them are Dutch. Some of them are African. Some are Brazilian. There are various types of butterflies, small, giant, double, and cybernetic butterflies, which look like something out of Dr. Seuss with their wild spidery flowers.
“Cebsters are fun,” she said. “They are so different and so cool.”
Freeman has lost track of which lamp it is. The bulbs have long been separated from their labels over years of being repotted, planted outside in the summer and then dug up and placed in boxes to remain dormant in the fall. It’s more fun to put them all together and see what happens.
“My style is kind of more, ‘Surprise! Look what we have!’”
The surprises begin when you start pulling bulbs out of the basement darkness in January. Each is potted, from one per pot to as many as 11, and brought into sunlight in the Freemans’ sunroom, its attached greenhouse and wherever else there is room available to wake up from their nap. Depending on the variety and bulb, it takes six to 10 weeks for the plant to flower after dormancy.
Freeman’s first flowers begin to appear in February and do not stop until the end of April. The rebloom rate ranges from 60 to 85 percent, “which is pretty good,” she says.
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When Freeman was a beginner, she diligently took notes from Martha Stewart amaryllis expert about specific fertilizer concentrations and when to apply them. I quickly realized that this was a lot of work with no noticeable difference in the results. She has since streamlined her approach. Plants don’t read guidebooks, she says.
“I don’t deal with any of that. I know all this stuff, but I like the average person,” she said. “I know what I’m supposed to do, but I know what I’m actually doing.”
So what exactly do you do to have a house full of amaryllis for three months straight? She shared her experience in the difficult business of amaryllis rebellion, and presented two methods for keeping bulbs: in pots or in the ground.
Keep them in pots
Once the amaryllis has finished blooming for the winter, cut the flower stem about an inch above the bulb. If you don’t, the plant will try to produce seeds, taking energy from regenerating the bulb. The stems are hollow and will weep when cut, so be careful of spills on clothing or carpet.
Allow the foliage to remain. “You just have to allow them to be this beautiful, strappy, thick, wonderful thing of leather,” Freeman said.
When danger of frost has passed in the spring (around the same time it is safe to pot out your tomato plants), place them outside in their pots. “The fresh air does them a world of good,” Freeman says. Avoid direct western or southern sunlight, which will be too hot for the bulbs. Freeman prefers a southern exposure with high shade or an eastern exposure.
Scrape an inch or two of soil from the top of each pot and replace with fresh potting soil and some slow-release fertilizer. Fertilize amaryllis as you would other outdoor container plantings throughout the summer.
By August, stop fertilizing and either lay the pot on its side or move it to a location where you can reduce the amount of water. Let the foliage turn yellow.
At the end of September, cut off the dead leaves and place the pot in a dark place with a temperature of about 55 degrees. The pots can be a little damp at first but do not water them while dormant.
Bulbs need eight to 12 weeks to rest. When the rest period is over, place the pot in sunlight and water. If you get the foliage first, it doesn’t always mean you won’t get a stem (and therefore a flower), but that’s often the case. This is likely a sign that the lamp has not been adequately recharged. Try again next year.
Plant them in the ground
Because Freeman has so many bulbs, she takes them out of the pot after they bloom, and plants them in rows like a crop in a raised bed, usually around Memorial Day once the soil has warmed. She said the soil temperature moderates better in the raised bed than in the pot, and it also allows for better root development. Just as in a pot, do not plant the bulb too deep in the ground or it will rot. Raised beds are preferred because amaryllis like light, warm soil. Do not plant in heavy clay.
It does not fertilize beyond the compost already in the bed.
“I pretty much ignore them, that’s what I’ve been doing all summer,” Freeman said. “I just plant them all out there and say: Kiss, kiss, see you in September.” “I just let them grow.”
When temperatures start to drop to 40 degrees in September, she digs them all up, leaves the foliage on, and sets them on a screen for about a week to dry. Then cut the leaves and place the bulbs, nose-side up, in a cardboard box. They make one layer per box, with an inch between the bulbs. She covers it with moss and sprinkles a little water over it for moisture. The boxes are sealed, stored in the basement and forgotten until after Christmas.
This does not include irrigation.
“You have to think like a plant. They’re used to the dry season where they naturally grow, so we don’t really want to water them.”
After the holiday, she opens the boxes and takes out any bulbs that have already begun to grow, plants them in fresh soil, waters them well, and then carries them upstairs. The process is repeated gradually over the next few weeks.
Always room for a few more
With a collection of amaryllis in triple digits, you might think Freeman would no longer be adding bulbs. Not so fast.
“Oh my God, yes, I always buy,” she said. “I try not to buy new things, but that’s what happens. People know I love them, so people buy them for me.
They usually add three or four new ones every year. She orders some from catalogs like Jackson & Perkins, Brent and Becky’s and John Scheepers, but she also picks them up locally, often when they’re 75 percent off or more late in the season — even if they’ve already bloomed.
In 2012, I ordered five Black Pearl lamps and placed them in one container. The flowers weren’t the deep velvety red I requested, but the stems rose to over 4 1/2 feet tall, almost like a tree. Then came a letter from the supplier saying they had sent her the wrong bulbs by mistake, but she could do with them what she wanted. Attached are the correct five bulbs
“I’ve never had amaryllis grow that tall. I have no idea what they are. It was crazy crap, but you know that’s the nature of gardening,” she said. “So those are still floating around here somewhere.”
The proof of this is that with amaryllis, surprises keep coming. No matter how old you get.
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Tips to grow like a pro
Deb Freeman offers these tips for amaryllis lovers:
» Plant it warm. Amaryllis likes to be potted, with only an inch of soil between the bulb and the edge of the pot. Don’t plant them too deep. One-third of the bulb should be exposed.
» Do not overwater. “Most people make the mistake of watering too much or underwatering the top of the plant. You have to water around you.
» Turn, turn, turn. Turn the amaryllis stem daily to prevent it from growing crooked toward the light source. “You have to keep turning them, otherwise they’ll be in every direction,” she said. “But the other amazing thing is how quickly they correct themselves.”
» Share with caution. If you must stake, do so near the edge of the pot and not at the bulb’s roots.
» Play it cool in bloom. Once they bloom, take the amaryllis plant out of the sun. Your flowers will last longer.
” aMaryles emergency? Do not give up. If your pot tips over due to the weight of the flowers, the amaryllis will remain as a cut flower for a week or more.
» Read slowly. One source Freeman turns to is “Amaryllis” by Starr Ockenga.
Five of her favorite amaryllis
“butterfly”: Also known as butterfly amaryllis, it has lime green flowers with burgundy veins. The rare evergreen amaryllis is grown as a houseplant, but be careful, it can be a challenge. Deb Freeman has only managed to make it bloom three times in the past 10 years. “It’s a very cool idea but it’s difficult,” she said.
“Barbados”: Velvety red flowers with bold white stripes.
“peace”: It’s an amaryllis cybister, so its dainty petals are dark coral with a more spidery green hue.
“lemon”: The soft yellow flowers work well in arrangements with other flowers.
“Aphrodite”: Large, showy double flowers in pink and white.