Yards and gardens look bleak and bare once the trees lose their autumn leaves. Until the earth warms up again, it’s hard to find color or fragrance in the landscape. Forcing bulbs to bloom early helps bridge the seasons and bring beauty to a tabletop or empty corner. You only need some pots, potting soil, and your choice of miniature daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips, crocus, amaryllis, Dutch hyacinths, or other bulbs. Some bulbs, such as paperwhites, can be forced in water. Image: Shutterstock/LesPalenik
Start With A Big Chill
Except for amaryllis and paperwhites, the bulbs listed above need a period of cold before they’ll bloom. “Pre-chill” your bulbs by planting them in pots that are at least 4″ to 6″ deep, so the roots have plenty of room to grow. For an impressive display, pack the bulbs closely, but don’t let them touch.
If you live where winter temperatures drop below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, store the pots in an unheated garage, basement, or cold frame, or someplace where the temperature stays between 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Your refrigerator will work, if you have room, but be careful. Some fruits give off gasses that can cause the bulbs to produce stunted or deformed flowers, so take any fruit out of the fridge before you store the bulbs there. Use the timetable below to see how long to keep them in cold storage. Exposure to light may make them sprout too soon, resulting in stunted flowers, so keep them in the dark. Check often to make sure the soil stays moist, but not wet.
If your winter weather seldom drops below 25 degrees Fahrenheit, you can sink the potted bulbs in a trench in your garden, and cover them with a thick blanket of straw or mulch.
When to start your bulbs:
- For flowers in January, plant bulbs from September to early October
- For February blooms, plant in mid-October
- For March flowers, plant from late October to early November
- And so on. Most bulbs can be forced successfully if started from October to January.
Hyacinth bulbs image: Shutterstock/Woina
Recommended Times To Pre-Chill Bulbs:
- For tulips, 14-20 weeks
- Crocus, 15 weeks
- Dutch hyacinths, 11-14 weeks
- Miniature daffodils, 15-17 weeks
- Grape hyacinths, 14-15 weeks
If you don’t want to wait, or you lack the space to store your bulbs, try amaryllis or sweet-scented paperwhites, which don’t require pre-chilling. You can purchase a boxed amaryllis that is already potted and ready to go.
For paperwhites (narcissus), start with a tall glass or ceramic container with two inches of clean pebbles in the bottom. Mix in 1 or 2 tablespoons of rinsed aquarium charcoal to help keep things fresh. Place three or more paperwhites, depending on how much room you have, on top of the pebbles. Pour in enough water to reach just below the bottom of the bulbs, and replenish it as needed. Don’t let the bulbs stand in water, or they’ll rot. You should have blooms in 4 to 6 weeks.
Waking Up Your Bulbs
Give your bulbs a smooth transition when they come out of cold storage. First, expose them to indirect sunlight for a week or two, and put them in a spot where the temperature remains around 60 degrees. You’ll know they’re ready for a bright window and warmer temperatures when they produce shoots 3″ to 5″ high. Watch for the flowers 3 to 4 weeks later.
After The Flowers Fade: Forcing Bulbs Again
It’s tempting to move your bulbs into the garden after they finish flowering, but many gardeners toss them into the compost pile and start over with fresh bulbs (with the exception of amaryllis, which will re-bloom). Most bulbs are depleted once they’ve been forced, and it can take several years before they recover. Paperwhites will not bloom again.
You can keep the flower show going, though, by staggering your planting schedule. Start a new batch of bulbs every couple of weeks, and by the time the first pots are fading, you’ll have new blooms ready to open. Paperwhite bulb image: Shutterstock/Tamara Kulikova
For More Experienced Gardeners: Getting Amaryllis To Bloom Again
Amaryllis are easy to force, but there are a few things you must do to get them to re-bloom each year. Begin by planting the bulbs in good quality potting soil that drains easily. Use a pot about 1″ larger than the diameter of the bulb if you’re planting a single amaryllis. For multiples, use a container that gives them an inch of space all around. Plant your amaryllis so that 1/3 of the bulb sticks up above the soil line. Water thoroughly, and don’t water again until growth begins. Depending on the variety, amaryllis will flower in 3 to 12 weeks.
To prolong the blooms, keep your amaryllis in a cool room with diffuse light. When the flowers fade, cut the stalks to within an inch of the top of the bulb. Now you’re ready to”bulk up” the bulb, so it can produce more flowers next year, so move it into a sunny spot or a southern exposure. Keep it watered and don’t let it dry out.
When spring arrives, and all danger of frost has passed, move your amaryllis into the garden. Some leaves may die but new ones will appear. Water and fertilize, following the product directions.
Amaryllis need a period of dormancy before they flower again. For holiday blooms, stop fertilizing and bring the bulb inside by mid-August, and keep it around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re not concerned about holiday flowers, stop fertilizing by late September, and bring the plant in before the first frost.
Don’t fret if the bulb drops leaves during dormancy. Keep it mostly dry, and in 8 to 10 weeks, a new flower stalk or stalks will emerge. Start watering again, and move your plant into a sunny spot. Again, after the flowers open, move the plant into a spot where the light isn’t as bright, and the temperatures are on the cool side, to prolong the flowers. You can repeat this cycle of growth and dormancy each year.