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The Pleasures and Perils of Forcing Bulbs

By Audrey Stallsmith (AudreyOctober 23, 2012
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This is the month to pot up spring-flowering bulbs, if you want them to bloom indoors in winter instead. Keep in mind, however, that most bulbs need to be kept quite chilly for a period of three to four months to perform successfully.

Gardening picture

Amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus are exceptions, as they don't require the cooling period.  You can expect bloom from them within about six weeks after you pot them up. 

For amaryllis, I would recommend paying a bit more to purchase bulbs from a reputable mailorder bulb merchant rather than from your local department store.  The mailorder bulbs are frequently larger and will send up two stalks instead of one.  If you do buy from that deparment store, try to get a peek inside the box to make sure that the bulb hasn't already bloomed in there--as can happen when those boxes sit around for a long time. 

Not all paperwhite narcissus types are white.  There are some sunny yellow varieties too.  The flowers do have a very strong and sweet--what some of my family members prefer to call "sickening!"--fragrance.  I like it myself, but not everybody does.  So, if you aren't into strong scents, you should probably avoid the paperwhites.     

red and white amaryllisThe chilling that most other bulbs require can be tricky, especially if your winter is as unusually mild as ours was last year.  I sometimes place pots of bulbs for forcing in the cold room in our basement, which has a window open at all times.  But I've recently been putting them in boxes, with packing peanuts for insulation, under the tables on our front porch.  Because it was warmer than usual last fall and winter, many of the bulbs I planted in pots in October--such as irises, grape hyacinths, and daffodils--began sprouting at once.  They didn't bloom, of course, as they hadn't had their necessary winter first.

red and white tulipsAbout then I began to wish I were wealthy enough to have an extra refrigerator just for bulbs!  I wouldn't recommend putting them in your regular refrigerator, however, as ethylene gas from ripening fruit can affect their flowering.  If you have a garage refrigerator that you use just for storing soft drinks or etc., it might work, if temperatures are kept in the low 40's.

For tulips and daffodils, it's best to choose types that naturally bloom early.  The tulip Carnival de Rio did well for me last year, and Apricot Beauty also forces beautifully.  Although I haven't tried many daffodils, Erlicheer came through in fine fashion.  One crocus that looks particularly pretty in pots is biflorus Spring Beauty.

lavender hyacinthAlmost any hyacinth can be forced, though mine don't always have the tall and evenly packed spikes you see in the greenhouse-grown types.  But even somewhat "spacey" spires of fragrant flowers can look very good in mid-January! 

Calochortus, the flower in the thumbnail, is also possible, since I did manage to get a few blooming under the lights one winter.  But, as I recall, they were buggy and not very happy!

For something different, you might also want to try a few of the South African bulbs that naturally bloom in winter, such as lachenalia, veltheimia, freesia, watsonia, and dietes.  Many of these prefer chilly conditions while they are flowering, though, so they might be more suitable for a cool greenhouse than for your home. 

Since I've never tried forcing lilies before, I decided to give them a go this year.  Just to be on the safe side, I purchased an inexpensive dwarf variety that I can place under the grow lights once they sprout.  If anybody has any experience with forcing lilies, please let me know how they worked for you. 

purple and lavender crocusActually, when it comes to forcing plants, we are all rank amateurs compared to Victorian gardeners, for many of whom this was a major hobby.  They, if I recall correctly, often forced such plants as roses, carnations, and primroses too.  Of course, they had the advantage--if it can be called that!--of cooler homes that were higher in humidity, many of which included conservatories as well.   

I still need to get my bulbs potted up and, unlike saner people, start wishing for a harsher winter this time around.  Despite all my failures last year, hope--like daffodils--springs eternal! 

 


  About Audrey Stallsmith  
Audrey StallsmithAudrey is the author of the Thyme Will Tell mystery series from WaterBrook Press (Random House) and an e-book of humorous rural romances titled Love and Other Lunacies. In addition to digging up plots--both garden variety and novel--the former Master Gardener writes free articles on plant history and folklore for her Thyme Will Tell site and posts her photos at GardenPhotographs.net . Audrey also designs hay-seedy stuff and nonsense for her Rustic Ramblings Zazzle store, and indulges in mystery novels, apologetics, cryptic crosswords, old lace, beads, and Border Collies. Follow her on Google.

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