Q. In addition to leaving the seedheads on my plants during the winter for the birds, is there any other help I can provide our feathered friends during the harsh winter months?
A. While winter is a cruel season for birds, they have survived many other severe winters with only occasional major population losses. However, you can make their survival a bit easier by following these few tips.
Although food is an obvious need, most birds can manage on the natural seeds and berries provided by growing plants. You can supplement this natural food by providing black oil sunflower seed, cracked corn, white millet and a cake of suet.
A real necessity during the winter is clean water. Keep the water from freezing by using a water heater, or a purchase a heated birdbath. Even on the coldest days, birds will bathe.
Finally, birds need shelter. On cold nights, small birds like chickadees and nuthatches will readily use any empty nest boxes in your yard. You can create a natural refuge by propping your old Christmas tree in a corner of the yard, or by creating a brush pile by gathering a collection of limbs and branches.
Arrange the largest branches parallel on the ground. Place the smaller branches on top. Your pile doesn't have to be perfect. Irregularity allows birds to get in and out easily. You may also want to add boughs from your Christmas tree for extra insulation.
Q. How can I grow narcissus bulbs indoors?
A. Paperwhite narcissus are good choice for forcing indoors since they don't require the chilling period like most other bulbs.
Place the narcissus bulbs, pointed side up, in a shallow pot filled two thirds full with marbles, polished stones or pebbles. Make sure the bottom of the bulb is deep enough so it comes in contact with the water. Pour water over the stones or other media just enough to moisten them, as well as the bottom of the bulb. You do not want to submerge the bulb in water; if you do, it will rot.
Put the pot in a cool dark room for about a week to encourage roots to develop. When green shoots appear, move the bulb into a filtered sunny location. Keep the temperatures cool during forcing. In about three more weeks, fragrant clusters of flowers will appear.
Paperwhites last longer when temperatures are no warmer than 65 degrees F. If it's too warm, they'll grow quickly and become floppy. To keep them standing tall, you can either support them with sticks and twine, or give them a little drink of alcohol. Research conducted by William B. Miller, professor of horticulture and director of Cornell's Flowerbulb Research Program, shows that when the shoots are about two inches tall, replacing their water supply with a solution of alcohol and water results in stems that are one-third to one-half shorter than normal. The size of the blooms and their blooming period are not affected.
To apply this solution, siphon out the water in the pot using a tool such as a turkey baster. You need a solution that is about 5 percent alcohol. Proportion is very important. If you add too little, there is no effect; if you add too much, you will kill the bulbs. To achieve this proportion, use isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) with water mixed at one part alcohol to 10 parts water. Or, use the real stuff, such as gin, vodka, or whiskey (typically 40 percent distilled spirit). Mix together one part liquor and seven parts water to make a 5 percent solution.
Typically, bulbs that are forced indoors should not be planted again. However, you may get lucky, and have blooms next season.
• Provided by Mary Boldan and Mary Moisand, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners. Master Gardener Answer Desk is located at Friendship Park Conservatory, 395 Algonquin, Des Plaines, open Wednesday, 9 a.m. to noon. Call (847) 298-3502 or email Cookcountymg.firstname.lastname@example.org