I am not sure whether it's gardeners anxious to extend the growing season - or those who market to gardeners - but paperwhite and amaryllis bulb kits are stacked for sale like fruitcakes at this time of year.
These are the bulbs that can be "forced" to bloom out of season without the months-long hibernation required by tulips, hyacinths and their kin, and they provide a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous poinsettia. According to the National Garden Association, 4.9 million households purchased bulbs for forcing last year - up from 4.1 million in 2007.
The kits sell for a few dollars and come with bulbs, a pot, soil of some kind and instructions a child could follow. As a matter of fact, the speed with which these bulbs grow and bloom make them a good project for children, especially when grown in glass, where the roots can be seen.
I received my first amaryllis from a neighbor last year for Christmas, and I was so encouraged by the easy results that I am forcing paperwhites this year, staggering their start so I will have new blooms every couple of weeks. It is cheaper than a bouquet of fresh flowers and lasts longer.
According to Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens in Michigan, which specializes in heirloom bulbs and their history, paperwhites are descendants of the Chinese Sacred Lily, which was not actually a lily and blooms as part of the Asian New Year celebration.
Brought to this country by Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, they soon found their way into the parlors of Americans, who were fascinated at the time with anything Chinese.
Kunst says hyacinths were among the first bulbs to be forced because they responded well to the process. Forcing was easy in the 1800s, too, because houses were so cold that the hibernation period was easy to reproduce.
"You read in diaries from that time that the glass vases broke because it was so cold in the bedroom. Or all the bulbs froze because they left them on the windowsill overnight," said Kunst.
It takes a little more resourcefulness to force bulbs today - or a spare refrigerator where temperatures can be kept under 48 degrees but above freezing for eight to 12 weeks. There are varieties of tulip, daffodils, crocus and hyacinth that are particularly good for forcing - Kunst recommends Lady Derby and Linnocence hyacinths - but if you are trying it for the first time, you can use any of the bargain-basement bulbs available at this time of year.
Here are some things to remember:
* Plant bulbs close together but not touching, and with the tips pointing up and exposed. Plant in regular potting soil with plenty of drainage pebbles. Water thoroughly and then again perhaps once a month. Mark the pot with the date and the contents and place it in a cool place between 35 and 50 degrees. (A kitchen refrigerator is not a good choice. Fresh fruits and vegetables emit a gas that inhibits blooming.)
* Hyacinths can be planted in the traditional hyacinth vase, with the bulb cradle, narrow neck, and water or water and pebbles below. Water should just touch the base of the bulb.
* Depending on the recommended hibernation time (10 to 16 weeks), remove the pot and place it in a cool spot in the house, allowing it to warm slowly. Blooms should appear in two to eight weeks. Keep it out of direct sunlight so blooms will last longer. Do not overwater!
* Though most bulbs can not be forced a second year because forcing requires so much energy, you can transplant the bulbs in the garden in March, with some fertilizer, and they should bloom the next year.