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Putting a bloom on the winter doldrums

ALL winter long, Steven Frowine surrounds himself with the blooming flowers of spring. ``If I can see spring,'' says the horticulturist from Warminster, Pa., ``then getting through winter is a breeze.'' Getting this pre-season bloom -- ``forcing'' as it is known in the trade -- is relatively simple and makes for a fascinating winter project, in Mr. Frowine's opinion. You don't need to be a horticulturist or even an experienced gardener to get this sort of jump on spring, he says. ``It's something anyone can do.''

Some bulbs, like the paper white and its yellow counterpart, Soleil d'Or, flower with such ease that you can plant them in pebbles early in October and have them in bloom at Thanksgiving. Plant some more in mid-November ``and you'll have a living bouquet for your Christmas dinner table,'' Frowine says. Better still, set out new bulbs every two weeks for a constant floral display.

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To force these Mediterranean narcissus, take a bulb pan or other shallow container and fill it two-thirds full with pebbles or gravel. Place the bulbs on the gravel about one inch apart and add water so that it barely touches the base of the bulbs. Now cover the bulbs with more pebbles and move them into a cool (about 50 degrees F.), dark place. The cellar is often ideal.

Leave the pots in the dark for between two to four weeks to allow the bulbs to root properly. After pale shoots appear and reach three to four inches, move the pots to a sunny, but not overly hot, window. A temperature of around 70 degres F. is fine. Be sure to maintain the water level so that the roots are constantly in water.

Forcing other spring-flowering bulbs -- tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, etc. -- requires somewhat more preparation. Frowine makes these suggestions:

Ask for bulb varieties that are recommended for forcing, as some do better than others.

Select broad, shallow containers as these need less potting soil and are more stable when the plants are in bloom.

Fill the containers about three-quarters full with a well-drained soil or commercial potting mix. Place bulbs on the soil just far enough apart so that they don't touch and so that the tops are just level with the rim. Fill in with more soil, pressing firmly around the bulbs, leaving the soil surface at least 1/4 inch below the rim. Water thoroughly.

Place in a cool -- above 38 degrees F. but below 50 degrees F. -- dark area for rooting. A root cellar, basement, cold frame, earth pit, garage, or even an old refrigerator will do. If the bulbs go outdoors where they will freeze later in the year, mound insulating materials -- perlite, vermiculite, styrofoam peanuts, or sawdust -- around them. Leave them in this cool, dark situation for at least 10 and up to 15 weeks to insure good rooting.

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After rooting, move the pots to a cool but bright (diffused light) spot for two weeks where they can adjust to stronger light and warmer temperatures. Top growth begins in earnest at this stage.

The final forcing stage is the easiest and most pleasurable. Place the pots in a sunny window or under strong fluorescent light and maintain cool, spring-like temperatures until they flower.

After the flowers open, you can remove them from direct sunlight. In fact, they will last longer if you do. Keep the soil damp, for when the flowers are in full bloom they use up a lot of water.

In the spring, transplant these early bloomers outdoors, though they will not flower again for at least another year.

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