Indoor bulbs offer beauty, fragrance and get gardeners through the winter

There are many roads taken to become a horticulture professional, Cheryl Whalen found was literally struck by her calling in her sophomore-year dorm at the University of Connecticut.
“We had lofts in our room and I sat up one morning, hit my head on the ceiling and said, ‘I’m going to be a horticulture major,’ ” she says with a laugh.
When she broke the news to her father he wondered aloud, “Can you get a job doing that?” Whalen wasn’t sure at the time, but by following her heart (and head) she ended up as head gardener at White Flower Farm in Morris, Conn., one of the most prestigious sources for plants in the country.

Cheryl Whalen is head gardener at White Flower Farm and in charge of a greenhouse filled with amaryllis bulbs. Indoor bulbs get us through the winter.

Cheryl Whalen is head gardener at White Flower Farm and in charge of a greenhouse filled with amaryllis bulbs.

This time of the year one of their most popular items are bulbs that are grown indoors. Paperwhites, amaryllis bulbs and a forced bulb collection keep gardeners happy during the long grey days of winter.
She’s been spending long hours filling pots with the amaryllis bulbs in the greenhouse for trialing and photography for next year’s catalog. There are more than 70 different amaryllis varieties offered by the company. At first she only knows the varieties by a number during a trial and then will select the best varieties which are then named.
After a little prodding, Whalen revealed a few favorites.
• ‘Apple Blossom’ has been a standard for many years, “I’m always so happy to see that one bloom, she says. It’s a simple flower compared to some of the newer varieties, but this classic sports very large pink and white streaked flowers with greenish yellow centers. “It always makes me smile,” she added. It’s both an reliable and traditional choice.

'Sweet Nymph' is one of a series of amyaryllis that share the 'Nymph' name. They are double flowers in a variety of colors. Indoor bulbs get us through the winter.

‘Sweet Nymph’ is one of a series of amaryllis that share the ‘Nymph’ name. They are double flowers in a variety of colors.

• The ‘Nymph’ series has spectacular double flowers.
• ‘Sweet Nymph’ was one of the earlier varieties.
• ‘Bright Nymph’ is red and white and looks like a candy cane.
She had a great tip for gardeners looking for the biggest bulbs, and in turn hopefully more flower stalks.
In the flower markets of Holland, there are grapefruit-sized bulbs, bigger than most of the varieties we see in the States. When ‘Pleasure’ was selected for the White Flower Farm catalog, the breeder sent huge bulbs that were “too big for the pots that we sell,” she says.
“If you wanted to try and get one of the mega (sized bulbs), try to get a bare root of ‘Pleasure’ and chances are pretty good if you order now, you’ll get one,” she says.
Amaryllis are great plants for kids too.
“It’s amazing how fast that stalk does grow,” she says. “Almost overnight it seems like it grows 3 or 4 inches and then there are beautiful flowers. For me, when you see them in person, they are satiny and different shades of reds and pinks. It’s difficult to catch all the nuances of the colors in a photograph.”
There’s even a variety that’s aromatic named ‘Rebecca.’ “You have to grow that,” she says. “The fragrance is amazing.”
The bulbs are easy to grow in a 6- or 7-inch pot with the top shoulders of the bulb above moist planting mix.
“Firming in that soil to support the stalk is very important,” she adds.
Sometimes the long stalk will need to be supported with a thin stake too. In some cases, gardeners will simply discard the plant after it’s done blooming, which she says is OK, but it can be saved for an annual show of blooms if cared for correctly.
The flower stalk is removed, but foliage is left on, the greens will feed the bulb as it goes into dormancy. Grow it in a sunny windowsill, treating it as a houseplant and then take it outside after danger of frost passed.
Like most gardeners, she was taught to put them in the shade and forget about them, but has found they are much more prone to re-bloom if grown in full sun all summer. They will need water when rain is scarce, and they need to be protected from too much moisture.
Another misconception is that the bulbs need to be fertilized heavily, Whalen gives them a boost here and there when she has time. After a light frost, the bulbs come in and she puts them in the basement.
“You basically forget about them for a while,” she says.
After several weeks of no water, the foliage will turn brown and should be removed. It’s the bulbs themselves that will tell her when they should be brought back upstairs to bloom.
“You’ll see a growing tip coming out of the bulb when it wants to be watered again,” Whalen says. Like any other gardener, when the spring season takes over, sometimes a few are forgotten, only to be discovered again when things warm up. “So then you have amaryllis in the summer, she says, I had ‘Rebecca’ on the steps in July.”

Paperwhites are beautiful and fragrant although not everyone loves their aroma. Indoor bulbs get us through the winter.

Paperwhites are beautiful and fragrant although not everyone loves their aroma.

Paperwhites are tender daffodils that can be controversial for indoor growing because of their strong fragrance.
“I love it, my husband hates it,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t have even one in the house, they are too strong for him.”
She gets to enjoy them in the White Flower Farm greenhouse, where they stay, because some of the office workers react like her husband does to the flowers. They are easy to grow and won’t re-bloom, so are relegated to the compost pile when finished. The bulbs will even bloom growing in pebbles and water. The beautiful white blooms and “spring-like” fragrance get many gardeners through the winter.
Another treat to remind us of spring are forced bulbs. Whalen creates “recipes” of traditional spring flowering bulbs that are potted up. Just add a little water in a bright room and the flowers will bloom in a few weeks.

Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at