Forcing Bulbs

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

Did you ever wish for a taste of spring in the middle of winter? How about the scent of flowers drifting through the house? Gardeners and non-gardeners can enjoy spring even in the middle of winter by forcing bulbs.

Now that the holiday season is fast approaching, paper whites and amaryllis are available in box stores, garden centers and even found in the local grocery store. You may find other bulbs like tulips, daffodils, muscari and snowdrops still available in garden centers as well. Knowing how to handle these bulbs becomes very important if you wish to be successful in brightening the winter months.

Paper whites are the easiest of all bulbs to force. When purchasing bulbs, be sure they are firm and not soft or moldy. These bulbs should be planted in a container of soil or stones with the tips of the bulbs above the soil level. Place in a cool, sunny location, water as needed, and watch the bulbs grow! After the bulbs are finished blooming, discard. Unfortunately, these bulbs will not re-bloom and are not hardy in our zone 6.

Amaryllis are just as easy as the paper whites. These large flowers are incredibly showy and fun to grow. Again, be sure the bulb you are purchasing is firm. The larger the bulb, the more likely you will get a flower spike or two. Be careful buying this one at the big box stores, especially if they are in a box where you cannot see the bulb. Often times, even though they may be much cheaper, the bulb may be too small to produce a flower spike, and you will be disappointed.

Plant them in potting soil, with the top of the bulbs above the soil level. Place in a sunny window, water, and enjoy! If cared for correctly, this bulb can be for years to come. Cut off the old flower spike and allow the large leaves to keep growing and continue to water as you would any other houseplant. After danger of frost, you can plant it outside or continue to grow it in the container. At this point, you should fertilize it frequently, about every two weeks. Continue to grow until frost zaps the leaves. Dig it up and store the bulb in a cool, dry place until you see something begin to sprout. Or if it is still in the container, stop watering and store in a cool dry place. Once it begins to sprout, re-pot, and place it into a sunny window and water. The cycle will start all over again.

Other bulbs, like tulips, daffodils, muscari, hyacinths and snowdrops are not pre-cooled. They need to be tricked into thinking that they went through their dormant time. So we need to cool these ourselves. This can be done by planting them into pots with drainage holes, covering the entire bulb with potting soil, and then cooling the entire potted container. You can store the container in a refrigerator (do not store it with apples), or store it in a cool, dark basement, temperatures averaging low to mid 40's. This cooling process will take 13 - 16 weeks, depending on the bulb variety. Remember to keep the pot of bulbs watered during the cooling period, but don't overwater. You want to be sure there is good drainage in your pots so water isn't retained in the soil.

You will see white roots coming out the bottom of your pot and sprouts on top when the bulbs are ready to see the sun. Place them in a cool, sunny window and water. The cooler the window, the less leggy they will become. After they are finished blooming, plant them outside and treat as you would any hardy bulb.

Try something new this year and start a gardening tradition! Bring spring inside and keep on gardening!

Read other articles on house plants

Read other winter related gardening articles

Read other articles by Mary Ann Ryan