I won’t deny that amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.) is one of the most striking flowering houseplants. Huge clusters of flowers are dramatic and that’s why people pay so much for a single bulb. Most people don’t realize those huge bulbs are hardy in our area. However, many people struggle trying to grow them.
Raising amaryllis outside requires different management than daffodils and other Dutch bulbs. Most bulbs should be planted several inches deep. I generally figure about three times the diameter of the bulb.
That’s not true for amaryllis. The tip of the bulb should actually rest above the soil surface. That’s usually most people’s first mistake. Planting them in areas with inadequate drainage is the second. Sometimes raised beds are necessary.
Those living in slightly cooler climates can still grow these impressive blooming plants outdoors. However, the bulbs must be dug in the fall and allowed to dry down indoors. Cool temperatures are best, but don’t let them freeze. When soils begin to warm in spring plant the bulbs back outside but leave at least a third of the bulb above ground.
Regardless of whether we dig the bulbs or leave them in the soil, amaryllis must be planted on well drained sites. Bulbs may require frequent watering in their first year, but established plants are fairly tolerant of drought.
They also need full sun for much of the day. Hot afternoon sun should be avoided if possible. However, too much shade will cause reduced bloom. In fall, mulch the beds with at least two to three inches of shredded mulch or pine straw. Rake the mulch away from the bulbs in the spring.
Unlike most bulbs which don’t require much feeding, amaryllis responds to regular applications of fertilizer. Avoid turf type fertilizers. These plants should not be fed too much nitrogen. A 1-2-2 ratio like 5-10-10 or 10-20-20 is better.
Fertilize them when green first appears, then when plants begin to show buds, and one more time after flowering. Slow release fertilizer is good too. Only one application is usually necessary.
As with all bulbs, encourage foliage to grow as long as possible. When leaves turn yellow and fall over, it’s fine to cut them off.
Amaryllis responds to separation every few years. Dig them and break offsets from the main bulb. Leave them attached to the mother blub if they aren’t very large. Tiny offsets may take several years to bloom.
If plants fail to bloom you likely have one of three problems. First, there may be inadequate light. Second, soil drainage might be poor. Finally, post bloom foliage growth might be insufficient to provide energy to the bulb. This could result from the first two reasons or the product of impatience. Sometimes we get in a hurry to remove yellowing leaves.
The next time you receive an amaryllis as a gift, plant it outdoors when you’re through enjoying it. It will come back in your garden year after year. Just remember not to plant it too deep and make sure the soil is loose and well drained.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.