Forcing Bulbs

flower bulbs
Couleur / Pixabay

After a brief bout of snow during the first week, we have experienced quite a decent October and most gardens are in excellent shape with warm days encouraging us to get out and do a thorough fall cleanup. We are not so lucky every year, as early snow and wind often discourage this task.

So, now what? A very satisfying project during the winter is the forcing of bulbs for indoor bloom. It sounds aggressive but “forcing” is merely a term for encouraging growth of a bulb indoors that would normally emerge from the ground in spring. You can do this with many different varieties, such as crocus, tulip, muscari, amaryllis, and hyacinth.

The easiest, however, is the Narcissus Paperwhite. Because Paperwhite bulbs do not need the weeks of cold temperatures some of the others do, you can pot them up for instant gratification almost any time. This member of the daffodil family requires no chilling, no soil, and will grow in any container in moderate light. What you need are some containers (minimum 3” deep), a bag of stones, marbles, beads or sand, and some raffia to tie them up when they get tall. For a great display, plant one bulb per inch of pot diameter (ie: a 10 inch round pot needs 10 bulbs.)

Fill your container with stones, placing the bulbs just below the surface with the tips up and covered with more stones. Put enough water in the container to just touch the bulbs’ roots. Bulbs sitting in water will rot. Place in a well lit window and you should have growth in a few days. Once they come into bloom, they will last longer in a cool spot.

For constant bloom, plant a new pot once a week for several weeks. With careful planning you will have blooms for weeks and weeks during the darkest part of winter. Some sources say to simply throw out the bulbs when they have finished blooming, but others suggest tucking them into the garden to enjoy again another spring. They all agree that you cannot force a bulb twice. That sounds too hostile for my kind of gardening anyway. A recent magazine article suggests a bit of alcohol in the water (gin? vodka?) will make the growth shorter. I don’t know if that works, but will maybe try it this year – perhaps a purpose for that Tequila that no one likes.

If you crave dramatic color, go for Hyacinths. The bigger the bulb the better. Place several snuggly in a pot, cover with sterilized soil, dampen, and put in a cold place such as the basement refrigerator or a garage that does not freeze. They need to be chilled for several weeks, then brought out into the bright light gradually. Once you see green growth, you are set, and Mother Nature will take over from here. I tried this with some yellow crocuses one year. They were charming, and have been blooming under the ornamental crabapple tree ever since, competing with the Siberian Squill for first appearance through the snow in the spring. (My apologies for mentioning “spring” in November).

Imagine your Christmas Poinsetta surrounded by pots of creamy Paperwhites in January – that makes a very satisfying picture.

Barbara Shorrock is a gardener, writer, retired realtor, traveler, ESL teacher and avid reader. She can be found most first Wednesdays at the Queensland Garden Club.