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Christmas in a cup

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Production team | 16:22 UK time, Thursday, 17 September 2009

Alys FowlerWhen I moved to New York to work at the Botanical Garden I was horrified to find out that there was no such thing as a tea break. I went a whole week gasping for a cup of tea before I plucked up the courage to ask why no one was stopping for tea. I was met with incredulous raised eyebrows. "Americans", I was told, "do not stop work for tea". "Would they, if I promised to up my productivity, mind if I installed a kettle and a teapot?"

Safe to say by the time I left there was a well established morning tea break, with loose tea, and much discussion of the joys of, say, Assam over Darjeeling.

My love of tea doesn't just stop at winning over the American workforce but to teapots, tea caddies, tea cosies, teaspoons and teacups. I love all things tea related (apart from tea puns) and have amassed too many junk shop finds over the years. I am no competition though for our researcher, Russell Jordan,who has an uncanny ability to source late fifties tea cups, or Russian sixties print tea sets, at a moment's notice. Together we've been hatching a plan for all those lost cups with no saucers, that lone seventies graphic print mug and that half set left getting dusty in the corner.

One diamond-coated drill bit and a cordless drill later, you've got a perfect vessel and saucer for growing pretty things in.

Hyacinths, paperwhite narcissi and scented crocus can all be forced ahead of the game so that you can enjoy some early spring in January. A little cheer for the windowsill, or beside your desk at work, all housed in a perfectly pretty teacup.

How to do it:

Crocus and paperwhites

Drill a single hole in the bottom of a bone china teacup. You will need a '10mm diamond coated tile cutting drill bit' (around £4 from a DIY shop). Fill the bottom of the teacup with just a little water (5mls is about right) to keep the bit cool. Place it on a non-slip surface which won't matter if the bit goes through. You'll have to 'rough up' the bottom a little with the bit at slow speed. Once the bit bites (so to speak) increase the drilling speed and push on through.

Please wear safety glasses whilst doing this.

Now fill the cup with well-drained mixture of compost and grit. I ended up using coir and grit which has virtually no nutrient content, but this doesn't matter as the bulb has all it needs to flower stored up from last year. You're just going to race ahead the flowering period and then once they're over, pop them into the garden to naturalise and spread. For this reason you can slightly over pack them for a better display.

Crocus will need to be kept in a cold frame (which is just protected enough to speed things up) and brought indoors just as they come into flower. Watch out for mice.

It makes sense to do a few bulbs each week for a succession of indoor flowers and scent.

Sweet smelling Paperwhites, Narcissus papyraceus, can be done in much the same way. Choose the biggest cups as they do better in slightly deeper containers and aim for perhaps just one bulb per cup, maybe two. They will take about six weeks to flower if kept indoors. Water them in well and don't ever let the bulb dry out, but don't let them sit in water.

As well as paperwhites you can also try small daffodil cultivars such as "Tete-a-tete" and "Jumblie". Both will have to be started off in a cold frame and then moved slowly from cold to warm conditions; say from the cold frame to a porch and eventually into a heated room.

Hyacinths will flower indoors after the paperwhites finish flowering, you need prepared hyacinths that are available in garden centres now. For them to flower in time you have to buy 'prepared' bulbs. These have been conditioned so that they already think "spring is soon" and will initiate flowering as soon as they have heat and water.

The choice is yours whether you choose to add drainage. You can drill a hole through the tea cup and set the bulb in compost with lots of grit or not. If you don't drill a hole then you have to be careful not to drown it with water. I've gone down two routes as an experiment. I filled two Victorian jelly moulds with grit and nothing else. The hyacinths just sit on the grit and I've made sure the water doesn't rise to the top. I could have been a bit kinder and put some compost in for food, but it doesn't look as nice as grit alone. I'm taking a considered gamble that they have enough stored energy to flower on. I also created little chicken wire cages for the bulbs to sit on in the water-filled tea cups and disguised the wire with moss that I raked up from the lawn. I've only used one bulb per cup.

For the next 10-12 weeks the tea cups and jelly moulds will be kept in the coldframe on a north facing wall. To keep the light out I've placed them in a trug with an upturned trug on top. The temperature needs to be 7-9° C. Different varieties respond to different periods in cool darkness. You have to play it a little by eye. When the flower shoots are 2-3cm high bring the bulbs into the light but keep them somewhere cool (a covered porch, a windowsill in the shed). Check the water levels. Once the flower spike begins to colour bring the bulbs into the warmth to enjoy the flowers. The flowers will need staking with little twigs as they come into flower. The warmer your house the quicker the flower will go over.

Once they have finished flowering, plant the bulbs out in the garden to die back naturally. It may take them a little time to adjust to life outside, but they will.


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