Looking for a fun indoor gardening project to do with kids this fall? Try planting an amaryllis bulb as a home or classroom project. This enormous bulb is easy to plant and bring into flower, making amaryllis one of the most rewarding plants to force for winter blooms. The large, dramatic, trumpet-shaped blossoms that open atop tall stalks are perfect for decorating a holiday table or livening up a windowsill when the garden outside is at its bleakest. Bulbs become available in mid to late fall at garden stores or through mail-order catalogs, offering flowers in shades of red, pink, white and bicolors that will burst into bloom about 6 to 8 weeks after planting.
Members of the genus Hippeastrum, tender amaryllis bulbs need to be grown as houseplants in most of the country. But in the warmest areas, such as Florida and southern California, they can be grown as landscape plants, which seems like such a wonderful thing. I love watching gorgeous amaryllis blossoms unfurl in limited numbers on my windowsills; imagine being able to watch a whole hedge of them come into bloom in your yard!
Those of us in colder climes need to start by choosing a pot that is only about 2 inches bigger than the diameter of the bulb. Using a light potting mix that drains well, set the bulb in the pot so that the top third of the bulb is sticking up above the level of the soil. Water it well after planting and move the pot to a sunny windowsill. Allow the surface of the soil to dry out before rewatering. Soon you’ll see a little tongue of green emerging from the top of the bulb, usually in about 4 weeks, as the bulb emerges from dormancy. After growth starts, keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy, and feed with a complete houseplant fertilizer every 2 weeks. Also be sure to rotate the pot a quarter turn every few days so that the flower stalk grows straight up; if you don't turn the pot, the stalk will bend toward the light. In a few weeks, you'll be enjoying the huge blooms that open at the top of the flower stalk. If your bulb is big enough, it will produce two flower stalks for a really big show.
One of the best things about growing amaryllis bulbs is that, unlike most other forced bulbs, they are easy to keep from year to year. With a little care you can enjoy many seasons of winter blossoms. Once flowering is finished, cut off the flower stalks close to the bulb (don’t be alarmed if some sap runs out), but allow the leaves to continue to grow and send food to the bulb to fuel next year's bloom. Give the plant lots of light, keep it watered regularly, and fertilize monthly with a complete houseplant fertilizer. If you can, move your plant outside to a lightly shaded spot for the summer. Continue watering and fertilizing until late summer or early fall; then stop feeding and gradually reduce waterings until the foliage begins to yellow. Be sure to bring the plant back inside before there’s a frost. Cut down the fading leaves and give the bulb a rest period in a cool spot (55° would be ideal) for at least 10 weeks; then repot in fresh soil to begin the forcing process again. Only move to a larger pot size as the diameter of the bulb warrants. If you stagger the times you pot up or bring bulbs out of dormancy, you can have plants coming into flower from early to late winter.
Nothing beats the winter doldrums better than a potful of stunning amaryllis in full bloom on your windowsill. Here’s a fun fact: the word “amaryllis” comes from the Greek word amarysso, meaning "to sparkle.” Plan now to add some floral “sparkle” to your schoolroom or home when the days are cold and short.