Q: I love to decorate my home for the holidays, and forcing paperwhites is something I'd like to try. Does it take a lot of time and effort?
A: Paperwhites are hybridized narcissus. They are easily forced into bloom, but bloom only once, then the bulb is spent. It is important that you buy your bulbs while they are still firm. When shopping for these (they cost about $1 each), buy at least several dozen, for visual impact. Here's what else you'll need: several ceramic containers or glass bowls, pebbles, potting soil, and Spanish moss. If you enjoy watching the bulb-forcing process day by day, place a 6-inch layer of pebbles into the bottom of your glass bowl with the following dimensions: 12 inches wide at the base, 8 inches tall, and 10 inches wide at the top. Now position 10-12 paperwhites on top of the pebbles (pointed side up) and place a thin layer of Spanish moss around each paperwhite bulb, then gently press into position. Now, fill the glass bowl with water, covering the pebbles and the bottom half of all paperwhites. The top half of these bulbs should stick out of the water and remain so at all times. Paperwhites that are forced in water will bloom within 10-14 days. It's a treat to observe the strong, elaborate root system, as it winds its way around the pebbles. The narcissus stems grow to a height of almost 24 inches. Narcissus paperwhites exude the characteristic bittersweet scent, and spent blooms remain attractive for many months, resembling dainty, dried flowers made of tissue paper.
Q: For many years, I have cultivated a variety of herbs in large beds, which I enjoy all summer long. Which herbs are best suited for drying and how do I go about this?
A: Rosemary, dill, fennel, and spearmint are some of the best herbs for air-drying. Ideally, these herbs should be cut back and harvested at the height of summer, in June or July. At that time, herbs are in prime condition and haven't begun to produce seeds. But, if you've waited to harvest them until September or October, there's still growth left for you to dry.
Cut back the best-looking, disease-free stems. Assuming that your herbs are clean and free of chemicals, you don't have to wash them. Just tie each bunch together with string and hang them upside down, such as from the ceiling in your kitchen. It will take several weeks, depending on moisture levels in the air, for all herbs to dry completely. Stems and foliage should be brittle and should fall apart when touched. Once that happens, gently remove each bunch from the ceiling. Place clean, white tissue paper (the gift-wrapping variety) on the kitchen table and gently shake out the umbrels, which are the flower heads from dill and fennel. Collect the seeds from each, then place them in small, separate brown paper bags and mark each with the name and collection date. Now gently break up and slightly crunch the leaves of dill, fennel, rosemary, and spearmint, but discard the stems. Then put everything in separate piles and again, fill small, brown paper bags with your dried herbs, fold the bags, seal with a sticker, and mark them. Fennel, dill, rosemary, and spearmint may be used in teas, add flavor to a variety of dishes, and make great breath fresheners.
Victoria M. Elder, a professional creator of residential gardens, answers frequently asked questions from Baltimore-area gardeners. You can e-mail her with your gardening questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.