Forcing Bulbs is Easy!

Think about it… All you are doing is simply mimicking a process that occurs in nature constantly, but manipulating the timing to happen when it pleases YOU!

When is the time to plant?

As soon as you see bulbs for sale in the early autumn, it's not only the right time to plant them in your garden, but to start planting them into containers for forcing. The cool temperatures of autumn are what instigate spring-bulbs to root into the soil and absorb the nutrients necessary to prepare for their big job in the spring, which in our case is to provide us with some beautiful flowers to get us through those cold, gray days of late winter when it seems as though spring will surely never arrive!

What is Stratification?

Huh? Stratification is the chilling process, which all hardy bulbs need to go through in order to prepare for their big show in the spring. It's crucial that all bulbs be potted by October, or November at the latest, and allowed at least 12-13 weeks to root into the soil and stay cold. Sustained temperatures of 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit are the "happy medium" for almost all hardy bulbs.

Which bulbs are the best to force?

Almost any hardy bulb can be forced, but as a beginner, you may want to try the sure-pleasers, such as Narcissus 'Tete e tete', 'February Gold' are excellent small types and try few of the double-flowered fragrant ones, such as 'White Lion, 'Tahiti' or 'Yellow Cheerfulness'. Tulips are also a great choice, particularly shorter species, such as T. greigii and kaufmanniana varieties, most of which have beautifully mottled foliage to lend extra interest to your pots. Other favorites include 'Apricot beauty' and 'Angelique' (double pink) which are taller and larger-flowered. Any and all varieties of Crocus, Hyacinth, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) and Scilla are must-haves too!

How do I pot them?

That motley crew of misfit pots and containers that have been accumulating behind the garage and in your basement now have a chance at a new life!

  1. Start with containers that are at least 5" diameter and deep, though larger pots are better, ideally between 6" and 12" diameter.
  2. Fill pot approximately half-to two-thirds with a loose, good quality potting soil. You might consider using a mix that is amended with time-release fertilizer.
  3. Set bulbs on the soil and lightly press them in, being careful that they are facing the correct way. Bulbs which have  a "nose" always go "point-up", but whenever in doubt, simply lay the bulb on it' side, as they will right themselves upon rooting in.
  4. Finish filling the pot to slightly below the rim, making sure that the bulbs are covered with 1" of soil or slightly more. Tamp lightly, and water well.

Where do I store them?

After potting and watering, you can store your pots side-by-side against the north side of your house or under shrubbery where it's cool and shady. Cover the pots with a sheet of burlap or a similar covering, which can "breath". Next, cover over this with 3-4 inches of loose mulch or shredded leaves, and finally with a sheet of white plastic. This will ensure that your pots stay cold and moist, but ideally NOT freezing. Try to keep your cluster of pots in an easily accessible area, just in case the snows of winter make finding them again difficult!

When do I bring my pots inside?

After the 12-15 week stratification period, you may bring your pots inside. You may want to bring just one in each week, or a few at a time.  Set the pot (s) in as sunny and cool a window as you can offer them, and water with a dilute fertilizer. The cooler the bulbs stay, the longer you can expect their blooms to last. Within just 7to 10 days the flower buds will begin to show themselves, and within 2 weeks or so they will begin flowering!

What happens after they have bloomed?

1) After flowering you may remove spent blooms, but continue watering and feeding lightly every 2 weeks or so, and give them as sunny a window as possible.

2) By late April, you can transplant your bulb pot into your garden in a sunny area and water it in well. The plants will complete their life cycle in the ground and the foliage will dieback by mid June or so, to grace your garden again next spring!

A few other tips:

1) Try "layering" your bulbs for a spectacular show. Fill a large pot one-quarter with soil. Set a dozen or so Crocus bulbs in place. Fill the pot to half-way and set 6 or 8 tulip bulbs in place. Fill the pot three quarters and set 4 or 5 narcissus bulbs in place and finish filling with soil. This will give you an incredible effect that looks like an entire garden in miniature!

2) A few days after you have brought your pots inside and have started to see new growth, consider sprinkling Wheatgrass (Catgrass) seed on the surface of the soil. This will sprout in 3 days and within a week will look like a lush green carpet around the base of your bulbs.

3) Crocus and Hyacinth bulbs have the unique ability to be forced without having to pre-pot them, and can be forced in ordinary water! Simply keep the bare bulbs in your refrigerator in a brown paper bag for the stratification period. Make sure to note on your calendar when it's time to bring them out for forcing. Don't get impatient! A bulb that has had an insufficient stratification period will grow rather stunted and may not even bloom at all. Choose a container with a small mouth that will allow the bulb to sit on top without falling in. Fill the container so that just the base of the bulb is submerged. Set the container in a sunny window and monitor the water level every day or two. After blooming, discard the bulb and start again.

4) For more instantaneous effect, try Paperwhite Narcissus. These are ready to grow as soon as you like, and need no stratification. They can be potted in soil, but are more popularly forced in a bed of gravel or marble chips standing in water. For a more elegant look, try using colored-glass marbles.

5) If you want to experiment with forcing bulbs, but don't have the time, patience, or place to do so, try starting with Amaryllis. These big, bold flowers are sure to please you and are quite easy to grow. Simply pot them into an 8"-or-so diameter pot with approximately the top-third of the bulb exposed above ground. Keep them in a very warm, sunny window and keep lightly moist until you start to see the flower bud and leaves emerging. The larger the bulb that you start with, the more flower stalks you can expect to have. A jumbo Amaryllis bulb can easily have up to 3 stems successively, with 4 or even 5 flowers per stem! After flowering, remove the spent flower stems and continue watering and feeding until late spring when the weather has warmed up sufficiently that you can put them outside for the summer. Keep your plant in a partly shaded location for the summer until late September. At this point your may bring your Amaryllis inside and set it in a very dark, dry room, such as your basement. Allow the foliage to completely turn yellow and then brown. After a period of 10 weeks, or longer if you like, you can bring your plant into a sunny, warm window, cut back the dead foliage, start watering and feeding again, and your Amaryllis will miraculously come back to life to start the process over again!

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