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Ask a Master Gardener: Planting paperwhite bulbs

Q. A friend brought me some paperwhite bulbs to grow inside during the winter. I am thrilled to have something to grow, but I don't know how to do it. Do I need to chill them first? How long? And how should I plant them?

A. You don't need to chill them. Many bulbs, such as daffodils, crocus, tulips, and hyacinth, require a cold treatment in order to bloom indoors. But some don't, including amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus.

You can plant them a couple of ways. You can just put them in potting medium in a pot that will drain well. Plant so that just the tip of the bulb is visible. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. No need to fertilize.

You can also grow them without soil. You can set them on pebbles, gravel or marbles in a bowl. It's nice to use something pretty in a clear bowl. I've used sea glass collected from Lake Superior beaches. A clear bowl will also allow you to keep an eye on the water level. Cluster the bulbs so they fit tightly into the container, or nestle them down into the pebbles or gravel a bit, so they don't tip over once they start growing and are heavier on top. Add water until it is just touching the bottoms of the bulbs. Don't let the water get too deep, as that can cause the bulbs to rot.

Put the planted bulbs somewhere cool, such as a basement, for a couple of weeks, until shoots develop. They don't need light at that point, but once the shoots are about 3 inches high, they'll want sunlight and more warmth. Once they bloom, three to six weeks after being planted, you can move them away from bright light to keep the flowers going a bit longer. If you want flowers all winter, plant more every couple of weeks.

Some bulbs can rebloom after being grown indoors, but not paperwhites. Once they're done, they're done. But they are glorious while they last, offering fragrance and color in the depths of winter.

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