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Registration is now open for our annual Spring Into Gardening conference on Saturday morning, Feb. 17! Educational speakers, delicious snacks, tempting silent auction items, fellowship with other gardeners. Here is the link: http://go.illinois.edu/sprig.

Add a whiff of spring to your short winter days by planting paperwhites, tiny narcissus. This is a fun, easy project for kids.

Here are some tips for buying and storing the bulbs: Buy only firm, shiny brown-coated bulbs and purchase enough to plant new pots every two weeks for a steady supply of flowers through the winter. Store the unplanted bulbs in a brown paper bag in a cool, dry location. Your refrigerator vegetable drawer is a perfect place. Because they don’t require any soil to grow, some of your stored bulbs may begin to sprout and send up shoots. Handle these carefully, and plant those with the longest shoots first. Paperwhites will grow in almost anything: soil, gravel or just plain water.

However, my preference is to plant them in soil because the bulbs are well anchored and tip over less frequently. Put some heavy pebbles in the bottom to help prevent this. Fill a pot about two-thirds full with moistened potting soil, push the bulbs in, and add more soil, leaving about 1 inch of the top of the bulb uncovered.

Keep the planted bulbs in a warm, light place and growth will begin immediately. A five-inch pot will hold three or four bulbs, snuggled against each other.

If you top the soil with rye grass seeds, they will sprout in no time, creating a mini-meadow scene.

Keep the plants well watered, and watch the shoots turn green and lengthen. Buds emerge in about three weeks, and blooms will follow a week later.

Display the flowers in cool locations to keep them looking their best. Left at room temperatures, the shoots elongate and make the pots top-heavy. To keep them from growing spindly, give them plenty of light and turn the container 180 degrees each day. (A good geometry lesson for kids!) If the light source is too faint or far away, the plant will strain toward the light, making the stems weak. If they do droop, add slender sticks next to the flower stalks. Lichen-covered branches give the display a casual, woodsy feel.

Now if you’re of my persuasion and hate to throw away anything that’s still good, here’s how to save the bulbs: Cut off the stems, but not the leaves. Fertilize the bulbs once during the winter with a half-strength application of all-purpose houseplant fertilizer.

Transplant the bulbs to your garden after the last frost date in mid-April. Select a site with well-drained soil and full sun during the morning. Plant bulbs six to eight-inches deep and three to five-inches apart.

Fertilize the bulbs again using a full-strength application of houseplant fertilizer. It may take two or three more years for them to bloom again.

If you have other questions about your garden or landscape, feel free to contact a Master Gardener volunteer at the University of Illinois Extension office in Charleston at 217-345-7034. You can also check out the many horticulture webpages at the U of I Extension’s website by visiting http://web.extension.illinois.edu/ccdms/ . And be sure to like the Master Gardeners’ Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/ColesCountyMasterGardeners.

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