The care and feeding of primulas


Each time I look at the collection of primulas on my windowsill, I'm wonder-struck at their color. It's so clear and sparkling, the hues (yellow, purple, apricot, shocking pink, fuchsia, crimson and white), brighter, I think, than in any other flowers I know.

Looking at them makes me forget my worries, at least for the moment.

Yet with all my enthusiasm for primroses -- the primula's popular name -- I had never grown any. Then, suddenly, a few weeks ago, the urge came over me to learn more about their nature and care. I visited the Clifford Egerton Greenhouses, a wholesale grower in Cub Hill and the principal producer of primulas in the Baltimore area.

The business was started in 1915 and is run by the founder's son, Clifford Egerton, in partnership with his wife, Elaine, and son, Richard C. Egerton. Specializing at first in cut carnations and glads, the firm now also offers poinsettias and an array of foliage and seasonal bedding plants including bulbs, annuals and perennials in addition to primulas.

The Egertons, whose primula crop numbers 12,000 to 15,000 plants, started growing primulas 12 or 14 years ago when someone sent them seeds. Should the mention of seeds give you a notion to try producing plants yourself, be advised that it isn't easy. In a greenhouse, plants are a four- to six-month crop, growing slowly and requiring three months to become mature enough to produce flowers.

Seeds aren't expensive, but they're hard to germinate. They take three weeks or so to come up, and only 60 percent to 65 percent are likely to emerge. While germination is in progress, temperatures should not rise above 60 degrees.

"Primulas," the senior Mr. Egerton observes from long experience, "are not a heat-driven plant."

But while they're developing, they need a warm environment -- preferably, 75 degrees or more -- to become established and form a healthy rosette of leaves. Otherwise plants might not bloom until the second year.

To bloom, though, primulas need cool temperatures of 60 degrees or lower. A drop in temperatures to 30 degrees won't harm them, Clifford Egerton says, adding, "They can stand a little freezing."

For growing in a window, Richard Egerton suggests choosing a northern or eastern-facing exposure. In a southern or western exposure, the sun may be too hot and burn the leaves. Also keep plants away from radiator drafts that dry them out.

It's the drying out of plants, the lack of adequate light and crowding that are blamed for yellowing of leaves, the Egertons say. Soil should be evenly moist but not soaking wet. For longest display in the house, buy plants whose blooms are just beginning to open.

When blossoming ends, you can set the plants in the garden. Primulas are perennials and will live in the ground "indefinitely," the Egertons say, if properly cared for. Don't, however, move plants from an indoor environment directly outdoors. Help them to make the adjustment gradually by leaving them outside in a shaded spot for only an hour or so on the first day or two, then extending the time little by little until plants toughen up and can take their permanent places in a bed.

Outdoors as inside, primulas bloom only once a season.

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