honey, what’s that growing in the fridge?
tucked back between the leftover roast-chicken hash, the spaghetti, and the cranberry relish, there squats a hyacinth bulb in a bidet of cold water in my otherwise innocent fridge. what we’re aiming for here is to get the ol’ bulb’s private parts, the basal plate, if you prefer, to delight in sucking up that cold drink, thus sending down roots that will gulp mightily while the green stem starts shooting up toward the cottage-cheese shelf. this is how you grow a garden in winter, how you turn upside down the whole planet and the slant of the sun, really, tricking the poor globes of potential into thinking it’s spring we are entering, not the deep depths of winter.
i am something of a paperwhite nut. like gretel scattering her bread crumbs through the woods, i scatter paperwhites everywhere i go in december. if i’m coming to your house, you can bet i’ll have paperwhites somewhere on my person–stuffed in a pocket, tucked in a big fat cereal bowl, planted in a gravely mound–and i’ll leave them behind for you to take in their december dance. i can do paperwhites with my eyes closed.
apparently, i can’t do hyacinths. not even with eyes wide open.
i am a hyacinth virgin, and i am definitely doing this with training wheels on.
feeling frisky and full of risk a few weeks back, i decided it was high time i moved up the horticultural ladder: a hyacinth would be mine. with all the tremble of a true go-get-’em girl, i reached out my fist at the garden shop that i love, and i grabbed the biggest, fattest purple-skinned bulb from the bin. because they do gardening for dummies there at the nursery, they had a healthy stash of cheat sheets nearby. “forcing hyacinth bulbs,” it read. “hyacinths are one of the easiest bulbs to force,” it promised.
that was two weeks ago. i did everything they told me. i plopped the fat bottom of the bulb in my special hyacinth forcing jar. i studied the cheat-sheet diagram, determined from their careful line drawing that the water was not supposed to touch the frilly underparts of the bulb. i tucked the whole contraption at the back of a storage closet in my shivery basement. (if you want beauty in winter, you must simulate the deep dark frozen underground of your garden.) i checked every morning for days. nothing. nothing. then, as if some subterranean plot to foil my hope, a spot of mold. egad. a green, furry threat to do in my bulb. but nothing, still, from the frilly underparts.
no more waiting around. it was time to put in a call to jennifer brennan, horticultural wizard and bulb lady supreme at the chalet nursery in wilmette, where this recalcitrant bulb had found its way to my basket in the first place.
get that thing in the fridge, and be sure the water is tickling its under-frills, she insisted. the 50-degree basement, while too cold for a little boy and his legos, is not cold enough for a hyacinth bulb itching to burst out of its oniony skin. it needs 38 to 40 degrees. and, while we’re at it, it does not like the gases emitted by ripening fruits or veggies, so the persnickety thing needed a see-through sealable coat, the bulb lady advised. thus, the gallon-sized zip-lock bag in which the whole kitten caboodle now sits, shivering. i need to keep an eye on the water level; make sure it’s touching the basal plate now, and once they start their winter’s descent, the tips of the roots must be dangling in water. then, when the whole forcing-vase bottom is a thicket of roots, i can unearth the whole deal, exhuming my experiment-in-risk from its place at the sorry back of the fridge. today it twiddles its rootlets alongside soggy spaghetti, by the middle of january, god and basal plate willing, it shall be a proud cobalt-blue garden of one, abloom by my sink, knocking me silly with its heavenly scent. stay tuned…