For an optimistic look toward spring, try forcing paperwhites. These white flowers make a heartening indoor winter garden and are "pretty foolproof," according to Kyle Wallick, a botanist with the U.S. Botanic Garden. "People don't have any difficulty getting them to grow."
Paperwhite bulbs appear in local nurseries and hardware stores in late October. "The bigger bulbs tend to be sold quicker," Wallick says. "Try to pick out fairly robust bulbs. They usually yield more flower stalks."
The bulbs can be found at garden shops such as Behnke Nurseries Co. for about a dollar apiece. Plant the bulbs in a shallow decorative pot four inches deep and six inches wide. Fill the bowl halfway with pea stones and then nestle three to five bulbs, roots down, into the gravel. Add more stones to cover the bulbs halfway. Set the bowl in a sunny window and water daily, making sure the roots are fully submerged. According to Wallick, paperwhites need "bright light, but they like it on the cool side, out of drafts."
Paperwhites take four to six weeks to grow. I usually start mine the weekend after Thanksgiving so they blossom by New Year's; the elegance of the tall green stalks crowned with star-shaped flowers is undercut, however, by an unfortunate tendency to tilt. To stake the plants, insert a chopstick into the pea stones in the center of the pot; gather the stems around the stick and tie them together using a sheer gold or white ribbon. Paperwhites bloom in full for about a week and make an ideal gift for a city dweller who doesn't have much contact with nature. Be sure to also root some for yourself; we all need a reminder of spring in January.