We might be leaning on the edge of winter, but I still can't help looking out over the garden every morning, even if it's too cold for the usual morning walkabout.
The asparagus still has pale yellow plumes that wave gently in the wind. Dawn redwood trees are showing off amber leaves that haven't dropped yet, and the peeling, cinnamon bark on the trunk and older branches really shines in the morning sun.
There are a few flowers still hanging on. Hardy mums, although starting to turn brown and wilt a bit under repeated frosts, are still holding up their flowers, and the fall blooming sedum is showing off deeper colors now as the days and nights grow colder.
Soon there won't be anything left outdoors that isn't brown, tan or gray, but just because we are spending more time inside, we don't have to give up color. This is the perfect time to start forcing bulbs for indoor blooming. It's also the perfect way to dress up the upcoming holidays, and planting now can provide lovely containers of blooming plants by Christmas.
A few years ago, I started forcing paperwhite narcissus for indoor winter blooming. I love the stark white flowers that contrast with the walls in my house and seem to glow in the evening lamplight. There's just two small problems with the paperwhites. They grow too fast so they tend to flop over, and they smell. The flopping problem is easily solved thanks to a bit of research by William B. Miller, professor of horticulture at Cornell University, and we'll get to that in a bit. But the smell isn't quite as easy to resolve. So although the blooming flowers look lovely, if you place a dish on every available surface, it can clear out a room as fast as an old dog with a bad diet.
I know this because the lovely dish of paperwhites I put in my living room a few years ago was on the move nearly daily. Whomever happened to be sitting in a nearby chair would move it to the table beside the next chair. It finally was banished to the top of the entertainment center on the other side of the room, 25 feet away. We were safe as long as no one walked by too fast and kicked up a breeze that wafted the scent across the room.
Not everyone is offended by their fragrance. When my first dish of paperwhites bloomed I didn't notice the odor, which is made up of several different chemical compounds, until my husband mentioned it.
''How much do you like those flowers?'' he said.
''You don't like them?'' I said
I stuck my nose in the blossoms and agreed they certainly didn't smell like roses. Afterward, I started noticing the musky, rotten scent. Like him, I began moving them further away.
I still like to grow paperwhites but they only adorn corners of rooms where we don't spend a lot of time, like the top of a curio cabinet in a corner of the dining room (we eat in the kitchen).
As far as the flopping problem, Miller and the Flowerbulb Research Program at Cornell, decided to mythbust the rumor that paperwhites growth could be stunted by diluting their planting liquid with alcohol. The program concluded that it did indeed work and the resulting plants are one-third to one-half shorter. Even though the plants were shorter, the flowers weren't affected at all, either in size or bloom-time.
Paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta), don't need cold periods to bloom like tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. The best way to plant them for indoor blooming (they aren't hardy to our winters for outdoor planting), is to set them on top of a shallow dish of some sort of decorative stones, marbles or glass beads. I like to crowd them in the container, but do what you like.
Add water until it barely touches the bottom of the bulbs. Bulbs will rot if they are sitting in water. According to Miller's article, let the bulbs sit like this for about a week, until the roots are growing and the top shoot is green and has grown about one to two inches. Then pour off the water and replace it with a four to six percent solution of water and alcohol.
Any ''hard'' liquor will do, Miller said. The formula he suggested is seven parts water to one part booze. Any more than this is toxic to the plant, and beer or wine is not recommended.
Don't be afraid to grow paperwhites, in spite of their odor. Garden and home centers sell packages of paperwhites along with spring flowering bulbs.
Only 25 percent of us are offended by the smell, and many people actually like it. I know people who like the smell of skunk, too, so you make the call.