Garden checklist: Feed your amaryllis a ‘martini’ for knockout blooms

October is time to start bulbs indoors for holiday gift-giving and color.

Among the most popular winter bulbs are amaryllis. They’re easy to get started and boast huge blooms. This example comes from Longfield Gardens (, which offers kits and bulbs in many varieties starting at $10.95. (This variety is Apple Blossom.)

Longtime garden author and national radio host Sharon Asakawa starts several amaryllis each fall to give as gifts and decorate her home. Her new book, “California Getting Started Garden Guide” (Cool Springs Press, $24.99, 240 pages), just came out this month. Amaryllis – actually the South American native Hippeastrum – take six to 12 weeks to bloom after potting, so now is an ideal time to start forcing.

Asakawa doesn’t use potting soil for her amaryllis. “I prefer to put them in gravel,” she said. “The top third of the bulb should be out of the gravel.”

Her secret? She feeds them a “martini.”

Asakawa based her method on research from Cornell University. A little vodka or gin mixed in water keeps the stems shorter, and stronger, to hold up those gorgeous big blooms.

“When you try to force bulbs, the foliage tends to get really floppy,” Asakawa said. “They don’t look very good. The researchers tried to find a way to keep the huge flower size but shorten the stem.”

Start when the sprout is 1 to 2 inches tall, Askawa said. “You need a 4 to 6 percent alcohol solution. Most gin and vodka are 40 percent alcohol. So, mix one part spirits with seven parts water. Then, use that ‘martini’ mix every time you water the bulb. The stem will be one-third shorter but with normal flower size.

“It’s got to be clear hard liquor; that’s why gin or vodka are ideal,” she added. “Beer or wine won’t work because of their high sugar content.”

This technique also is recommended for forcing narcissus bulbs, she said.

Once it blooms indoors, amaryllis can be replanted outdoors in the garden. Said Asakawa, “It’s one of the few bulbs that will revert back to its normal bloom season (when replanted outdoors), early to mid-spring. It will adapt and rebloom for several seasons to come – maybe even the first year.”

Here are more garden tasks for early October:

Trim spent flowers from rose bushes to coax one more round of blooms.

Dig up corms and tubers of gladioli,

Plant spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils, crocus and Dutch iris. Add bone meal to the beds for larger blooms and stronger stems.

Treat azaleas, gardenias and camellias

Plant seeds for radishes

Watch out for snails.

– Debbie Arrington