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Garden Plot: Plants for this Easter — and next

Easter lilies don't naturally bloom at Easter. (Thinkstock).

Meet Mike in Reston! Mike will give garden talks at 1 and 3 p.m. at the Reston Town Center Garden Event on Sunday, May 5.

Spring bulbs are a great symbol of the season

My favorite flowers for this time of year are spring bulbs such as tulips and daffodils, alive and growing in pots. (You might like stinky hyacinth as well; if you do, I hope it’s warm enough to open a window at Easter dinner.)

To get the longest-lasting show, buy potted bulbs that are not yet in full bloom; you want your plants to still have closed buds, or at least flower heads that are still nice and tight. If the petals are wide open, they’ll be dropping off the day after Easter.

To prolong the indoor display, remove the decorative foil, water the plant well by letting it sit in a few inches of water for a while, let it drain, replace the foil and then place the plants in a cool spot in your home — not near a heater or in a sunny window.

Plants with tightly packed flowers that are kept cool can stay in bloom for several weeks.

Helping potted spring bulbs return next Easter

Spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils are festive plants that are true to the season; they die back to the ground but then reemerge to bloom naturally at Easter time. And they might be coaxed into flowering again for seasons to come.

You can try this with any potted bulb, but daffodils have the best chance of blooming again in years to come — and they’re pest-proof; rabbits, deer and voles won’t touch them!

If you want to try this with tulips, stick with basic red tulips — they’re the most reliable about returning. (Just know that deer, rabbits and voles love to eat tulips.)

Anyway, after the flowers fade, ditch the decorative foil, take the plants outside, place them in full sun and feed them with a diluted liquid organic plant food every time you water. When the leaves start to turn brown, stop watering. When the leaves are completely brown, clip them off and store the bulbs in their pots in a cool, dry spot indoors.

Then take them out of their pots and plant them in the garden after Halloween but before Thanksgiving.

‘Easter lilies’ don’t naturally bloom at Easter …

If you buy an Easter lily this season, you can thank Louis Houghton, who brought a suitcase of the bulbs back from Asia at the end of World War I, gave them away to friends on the West Coast and inadvertently started a booming business in Southern Oregon that became the only source of the popular bulbs when World War II broke out.

However, unlike daffodils and tulips, these ‘trumpet lilies’ are not spring bloomers. If you can get them to successfully take in your garden — which is not an easy task — they will naturally produce their flowers in July and August. The ones for sale this weekend have all been ‘forced’ to bloom for the Easter season.

Oh, and there’s an overwhelming chance that the lilies being sold right now were grown in or near the same Southern Oregon coast where soldier Louis and his friends struck “white gold” back in the 1920s and ‘30s. Something like 95% of the lilies sold at Easter come from one small area where coastal Oregon meets California.

… but azaleas do

Want a somewhat different Easter “flower” that’s very likely to come back when planted outside correctly? Azaleas are an excellent choice, and they bloom naturally at this time of year, meaning that they 1) reflect the reason for the season and 2) haven’t been forced to flower like the famed Easter lily, and so they do much better in local gardens.

To enjoy the plant indoors for Easter, keep it in a cool spot and remove any decorative foil when you water. Then, during a stretch of mild weather — not too hot, not too cold — take it outdoors and plant it in partial shade in a spot that drains well. (Azaleas don’t need full sun; they’re naturally “understory plants” in the wild.)

Position the plant slightly higher than it was in the pot, and refill the hole with one-third milled peat moss mixed well with two-thirds of the soil you dug up. (Azaleas absolutely require an acidic soil, hence the peat moss. Otherwise you don’t want to improve the soil in the hole or the roots won’t grow out.)

Water the plant well afterward by letting a hose drip at the base for several hours. Keep it watered during dry spells, keep the soil acidic and don’t let deer eat it. Prune only in the weeks right after the flowers fade. This is also the time to feed — surround the plant with a half-cup of Holly Tone, cover that with an inch of peat moss and then cover the peat with compost, shredded leaves or pine straw.

Important: Don’t use wood mulch of any kind near azaleas.

The biggest and boldest Easter plant

I’m not a fan of Easter lilies (they don’t grow well naturally in our region and will never rebloom at Easter time even if you can get them to grow) or hyacinths, which to my nose smell like being trapped in an elevator with someone who buys Georgio by the gallon.

I like tulips and daffodils; they bloom naturally at this time of year and really capture the Easter spirit of rebirth.

But as I look outside at my flower garden, I realize that there’s probably no better Easter plant than forsythia. They’re absolutely bulletproof plants that put on a dazzling display of glorious golden rebirth every spring. Just don’t try to prune them into a cute shape — they look their best and flower the most when they’re allowed to arch majestically toward the sky.

Come to think of it, that’s Easter on a stick, isn’t it?

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