Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


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Amaryllis reblooming & propagation

2017-12amaryllis red Barb Gorges

Amaryllis is a popular flower at Christmas time, but without forcing, it prefers to bloom in spring. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 17, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Amaryllis beyond the holidays: reblooming and propagation.”

By Barb Gorges

In the pantheon of Christmas season flowering plants, I’ll take the elegant amaryllis and its big blossoms any day. Oh wait, I don’t have any more room on my windowsill.

What started as two amaryllis gifts 10 years ago has become numerous “daughters” and seedlings.

The amaryllis you see listed in catalogs and for sale at garden centers, florists and grocery stores during the holidays are intended to be disposable. But it really isn’t difficult to get them to bloom again, though there is a trick to get them to perform next Christmas. Growing them from seed you collect yourself takes only patience.

Beware

Beware of amaryllis bulbs encased in colorful wax decorated with glitter. They flower without any need for dirt or water because the bulbs are large and contain nutrients needed for blooming. Just set them on a saucer. But it seems to me cruel and unusual punishment to bind a bulb in wax and let it die after flowering.

Beware the decorative pot that may come with your bulb. It doesn’t have a drainage hole. No fuss, no muss. But if you want to keep your holiday amaryllis from year to year, replant it in a pot with a drainage hole. The proper pot size leaves about an inch between the side of the bulb and the side of the pot. Plant the bulb so that nearly half of it is above the soil.

Watering and fertilizing

Without a drainage hole, you are never sure if you have given a plant enough water or if there’s a big underground puddle rotting the roots. It’s best to water a potted plant a bit at a time until water emerges through the drainage hole and then dump the excess water.

Watering amaryllis once a week works in the winter climate of our Cheyenne house which has 20-40 percent humidity, is at 64 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime and cooler at night. The peat-based potting soil holds water well enough, but I allow the top inch of soil to dry out. Little black fungus gnats mean I’m watering too much.

I fertilize my amaryllis maybe at 25 percent or less of what is recommended on houseplant fertilizer packages. My friend Jane Dorn has an enormous pot of enormous bulbs that bloom two to three times a year and she only fertilizes once a year.

Dormancy for forcing or wintering

If you want to force your amaryllis to bloom for Christmas next year, treat it as a houseplant over the summer. In early September, unearth it carefully, wash off the dirt, trim the roots to 1-2 inches long and trim the leaves 1-2 inches above the neck.

You Tube’s Amaryllis Man Charlie Johnston says to let the bulbs dry for three weeks before refrigerating them for 6 weeks. You can also do this if you don’t have room indoors in the winter for a lot of big floppy-leaved plants.

Take the bulbs out 5-6 weeks before you want them to bloom and repot them. Bulbs are in this condition when you buy them for holiday blooming.

Reblooming naturally

I don’t let my amaryllis go dormant. The first year I had one, I decided to keep watering it year-round and it bloomed again in spring following the next Christmas.

I put my amaryllis plants out for the summer on our covered patio. The roof is translucent plastic, shady by afternoon. It also protects plants from hail and hard rain. I put the plants back inside a sunny window in September and wait.

Looking at my records, flowering begins anytime between the end of February and early April and lasts for a month. My two varieties don’t bloom at the same time as each other.

2017-12amaryllis w daughters blooming--Barb Gorges

This pot of pink amaryllis has a mother bulb, two blooming daughter bulbs on either side, and a couple baby bulbs sending up their first leaves. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mothers and daughters

If you keep your amaryllis from year to year, you may discover your bulb gets bigger and bigger and/or produces offsets, or daughters. You can leave these new bulbs attached and let them mature and bloom. You may have to accommodate them with a bigger pot at some point.

Or, you can carefully unearth the whole mass and break off the daughters and repot them separately, to give away or keep. The Amaryllis Man soaks his bulbs, leaves and roots in a fungicide for 10 minutes before planting, but I haven’t found that necessary.

See the Amaryllis Man for how to force daughter bulbs to develop by “chipping,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoIelfGWdg.

2017-12amaryllis w stylus pollination-ready Barb Gorges

Each amaryllis flower has six anthers and a stylus. Pollination happens when the pollen on the anthers starts dusting everything and the tip of the stylus opens. Photo by Barb Gorges.


Seedlings

I found growing amaryllis from seed is surprisingly easy, although it can take four years to get blooms.

First, make sure the flowers get pollinated. I had one plant flower in the summer outside where some insects did the job. I’ve also had indoor plants pollinate themselves or I can help them.

Amaryllis flowers make an excellent demonstration of plant reproduction. There are 6 yellow pollen-tipped anthers. You’ll know when the pollen is ripe because it starts dusting everything. At that moment, the end of the single stylus should be open. You can dab pollen on the end of it.

2017-12amaryllisseeds-BarbGorgesIf you are successful, the ovary will begin to swell right behind the flower petals. A three-lobed pod will develop. Leave it on the flower stem. When it turns brown, it will split open and you can collect the seeds.

Each tiny seed is encased in a flat black wafer. You can give the wafers a couple weeks to cure. Their germination rate will be highest if you sprout them right after that.

2017-12amaryllis seedlings Barb Gorges

The wafer-like seeds of the amaryllis can be floated on water until they sprout in three or four weeks and can be transplanted into soil. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While you can start these seeds as you would flower or vegetable seeds, in a flat of a seed-starting medium like a perlite-peat mix kept moist, I found it more fun and easier (no constant checking soil moisture) to float the seeds on water. After three or four weeks, they sprout tiny leaves and roots with the tiniest bulge of the future bulb. Once they are big enough to grab, you can transplant them as you would any seedling.

But now comes the hard part, waiting for the seedlings to grow up. The Amaryllis Man says some will bloom as early as three years old, but usually it’s four.

Sigh.

That means I have two or three more years before I find out if the cross pollination of my red and pink varieties will yield anything interesting.

2017-12amaryllis seedlings planted Barb Gorges

The amaryllis seedlings on the left are about a year old. The seedlings on the right are newly transplanted after sprouting in water. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Where to buy

If you don’t have any amaryllis yet, it isn’t too late to find them at stores and in catalogs. If you plant a bulb in January, it will bloom at its natural blooming time in early spring.

You may find bulbs marked down at our local garden centers and grocery stores now. Catalogs like Jackson and Perkins or Breck’s offer more variety. And then there’s the Amaryllis Man’s website, http://stores.ebay.com/amaryllisman. If you don’t need your amaryllis in variations of Christmas red and white, he offers some that are orange.

Hmm.

I might have room on my windowsill for one of those if I find another home for my rubber tree….

2018-03-01AmaryllisSeedPodsbyBarbGorgesUpdate, March 1, 2018:

Typically, my amaryllis bloom in February or March. This year they started blooming in mid-January. Only one decided to hold out until the end of February. Just before the petals of one of the early bloomers started to wilt, I touched the anthers to the pistil and now the seed pods are swelling.

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Starting from Seed: Starting seeds indoors

lettuce under lights

Lettuce under lights

Published March 25, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Gone to seed: Planting and nurturing a garden from scratch can be one of the more rewarding aspects of the summer season. But keep a few tips in mind before turning over soil.”

By Barb Gorges

My eyes were bigger than my garden when I shopped the seed catalogs last month.

In my quest this summer to cultivate an early tomato from seed, as well as an annual (the dwarf cosmos), I now have 18 packets of seed sorted by when they need to be started indoors. By the way, it is now time to get those seeds started, if you haven’t already.

But some plants do best when seeded directly into the garden. I have five packets of sunflowers on standby, along with seeds for lettuce and radishes.

I’ve done the calculations (number of days to germination, plus two weeks to transplant size before May 24, the average last frost date), or used the information on the seed packet, and marked a spare calendar with the planting dates for each plant.

The earliest is Marine Heliotrope Peruvianum, very tiny seeds, which I started March 1. I’m not familiar with this annual – it showed up instead of a marigold I ordered, but I’m curious. I’m the gardener who lets things sprout in the perennial bed and waits to see what they are—if I don’t immediately recognize them as bindweed or thistle.

There are three factors important to seed starting success, says Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. They are: sterile pots; new, sterile soil and planting seeds to a depth twice the width of the seed.

Sterility

Pots need to be sterilized with a good scrub for ones being reused, plus a few swishes in a 10-percent bleach solution.

As for soil, you could bake your own at 250 degrees until it reaches 140 degrees for 30 minutes to sterilize it, but it smells. Instead of garden soil, buy fresh “soil-less” potting soil, which is light and fluffy and usually sterile. If you have time, leave it out in sub-freezing weather for a couple of weeks to kill everything.

You can make your own soil-less seedling mix: 3 parts milled sphagnum, 2 parts perlite and 1 part vermiculite.

For my pots, I’m trying a bag of “Seed Starting Jiffy-Mix.”  It’s very dry and needs to be mixed with water before putting it into the little seed-starting cells—otherwise it sheds any water I pour on it.

Depth

The rule of (the green) thumb is plant no deeper than twice the width of the seed (not the length or thickness), Smith says. Seeds have evolved to sprout with just heat and moisture (though a few actually need light, too), but if they don’t reach sunlight before they use up the energy stored within the seed, you’ll never see them.

Master Gardener Kathy Shreve demonstrated how to pick up a very tiny seed: Use the end of a dampened toothpick, and then brush the seed onto the surface of the growing medium.

Moisture

Pots need to have drainage holes in the bottom. While you are waiting for seeds to germinate, the growing medium can’t get too soggy or too dry.

I was particularly intrigued with Shreve’s Advanced Propagation System. It is a commercially available miniature, self-contained greenhouse, with a tray of planting cells, a clear plastic dome lid to keep moisture in and a water reservoir below that should only need filling every few days.

The ends of a porous mat hang down into the reservoir and capillary action brings moisture across the mat placed under the planting cells where the soilless planting medium wicks it up to the plants.

A less fancy method is to gently spritz the soil surface when necessary and lay plastic wrap over it until sprouts show. Verena Booth said she sprouts difficult seeds the way alfalfa is sprouted for salads, and then pots them. Or try folding seeds in a wet paper towel placed in a plastic bag. It worked for me.

Light  

The only sunny windowsill at our house is already full, so I’m using a 4-foot fluorescent shop light suspended over the workbench downstairs. Windowsills are rarely bright enough and ours would be a poor choice anyway since we have low-e glass which keeps out a part of the spectrum and makes my houseplants leggy.

However, Master Gardeners Shreve and Barb Sahl agree that cool white fluorescent bulbs work fine for starting plants. The blue spectrum is perfect for seedlings. Keep the light close to the seedlings, 1 to 2 inches above. If the height of the light isn’t easy to adjust, or you have plants of different sizes at the same time, add blocks of wood or something under the short plants’ pots to get them close enough. Shreve gives her seedlings light 16 hours a day. Sahl leaves her lights on 24/7.

Air

Damping off disease breaks a lot of hearts. One day the brave little seedlings are vigorously reaching for light and the next they are lying flat—rotted off at the soil surface. Sterile soil helps prevent this. Shreve and Sahl also use moving air, a preventive seeds started outdoors get naturally. But it’s too cold to open a window, so try a fan set on low and placed across the room.

The other benefit to subjecting seedlings to a breeze is stronger stems.

Heat

Heat, especially for plants of tropical origin—tomatoes and peppers—is necessary to germinate their seeds. The cost of plugging in a heat mat I bought through a garden supply store to put under a flat of seedlings is probably less than turning up our household thermostat to 80 degrees.

A week after planting, 30 percent of my heliotrope seeds had sprouted. Before April I plan to start the tomato and cosmos. If all goes well, I may be looking for ways to hang flats of seedlings under all of our fluorescent ceiling lights.

Clarification:

When sterilizing potting soil by baking it in your oven at 250 degrees, it must bake 30 minutes after the soil temperature reaches 140 degrees.


Starting from Seed: Choosing the Right Seed

Short season seeds

Some short growing-season vegetable choices for Cheyenne

Published Feb. 26, 2012 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “From scratch: A beginning gardener shares her experiences gained from taking the first steps in growing indoor tomato plants from seed.”

By Barb Gorges

Can I call myself a gardener if I buy blooming bedding plants and keep them alive until frost?

Possibly. But my real test is whether I can start something from seed indoors, which I haven’t done in 20 years. And, even though it’s February, now is not too early to start thinking about that.

My inspiration is the pep talk Kathy Shreve and Barb Sahl gave the Master Gardeners’ class recently. It looks so simple: florescent shop light, sterile seed-starting medium and pots, proper watering, a little air circulation and fresh seed.

Seed. There’s the sticky spot. Some plants I like don’t do well in Cheyenne or would need more sun than my shady yard offers.

This is my experiment for the coming growing season: raise from seed at least one easy annual flower and a fast tomato.

Why all the bother? Because just as I can bake my own bread, even though it’s much easier to buy a loaf at the bakery, I want to see if I can grow from scratch.

Seeds

There are several seed companies out there that cater to our unique gardening needs.

For starters, I was already familiar with Maine’s Pinetree Garden Seeds. This company offers a reasonable climate match. I ordered from them years ago and Shreve does today. Visit www.superseeds.com or call 207-926-3400.

Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, mentioned three seed catalogs recently that match other aspects of our challenging growing conditions.

For high altitude, try Seeds Trust, located in Littleton, Colo., www.seedstrust.com, or call 720-335-3436.

For drought-hardy plants, High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, N.M., offers recommendations on xeric gardening, as well as plants and seeds. Visit www.HighCountryGardens.com, or call 800-925-9387.

For a comprehensive flower and vegetable catalog, check Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is another Maine company. Visit www.johnnyseeds.com or call 877-564-6697.

You can also check local garden centers, but do read the seed packets carefully.

Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone specializes in plant varieties that are hail and wind resistant.

Planting strategy

For my summer project, Wissner recommended I start with a cherry tomato plant. The fastest tomato I could find, maturing in 55 days, is called Gold Nugget, which produces yellow cherry tomatoes.

Local gardeners who want to grow tomatoes might want to look for tomatoes that mature in 55 to 60 days, she said. This means with luck, you’ll harvest your first tomato 69 to 80 days after May 25–that is, between Aug. 2 and 13. The average first frost date looms barely more than a month later, about Sept. 20.

Why all the extra time? Vegetable seed packets and catalogs will tell you how many days it takes for seeds to germinate and how long until harvest time. In reality, you need to extend those time frames by many days, Wissner said.

When Wissner starts vegetables indoors, she first adds another 14-20 days after germination to allow plants to grow to transplant size.

She then adds another 14 to 20 days after transplanting outdoors. That accounts for transplant shock. At that point, she can start counting the stated days to maturity.

For my annual flower, Wissner recommends cosmos, which produces brightly colored flowers.

The cosmos I’ve chosen, a dwarf variety in a mix of colors, germinates in seven to 10 days. Maturity is at least 75 days for some cosmos varieties so if I want flowering plants to put out in May, seeding indoors the first of March might not be too soon to start. But since even dwarf cosmos could be 2 feet tall at flowering, they’d get too big for my set-up, so I’ll wait a bit.

And both the flowers and the tomato will need “full sun,” –at least 6 hours per day. I’ll have to think about where to fit them in my shady yard, or which tree to cut.

It’s easy to see why buying well-developed plants from the nurseries is so popular when, for instance, some varieties of tomatoes are rated at 120 days to maturity, the number of days after seed germination before the first fruit can be harvested.

Next month I’ll prepare my seed-starting equipment. Digging in the garden is still months away, even if wind keeps evaporating the snow.

Climate

The first hurdle to choosing plants that will thrive in your yard is understanding the climate.

The newly revised USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov) shows Cheyenne in Zone 5b, meaning our maximum cold temperatures are -15 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of our 6000-foot elevation and northern latitude, we also have a short growing season.

Cheyenne’s average first frost-free date is May 25—that’s considered a safe time to get your plants in the ground.

After that, the growing season is only 90 to 110 days long, according to Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Laramie County Extension Service Horticulturist.

You can see why season extenders like Wall O’ Water, hoop houses or high tunnels— modern, light-weight greenhouses—are popular here. They can push the planting date earlier by weeks.

Note: Using Catherine’s formula and the catalog information, I figure I’ll need to plant the seeds four to six weeks before May 25, in early April. If I decide to try Wall O’ Water, giving each plant its own little protective, water-filled, plastic walls so that I can transplant them earlier, I will have to start seeds earlier.