Experience is the best teacher. Economy is a great cheerleader.
Those brilliant, fragrant hyacinths in the stores every spring have been forced, that is, made to bloom in a pot on a schedule set by humans rather than nature. I rarely buy forced bulbs, or any potted flowering plants, for that matter, being such a cheapskate, er, economy minded gardener. Could I produce some gift-quality blooming hyacinths at a home-grown discount? Last November, when I walked into my favorite big box store and found the remaining bulbs on sale at half price, I had to try forcing. Five dollars plus tax got me a bag of seven "Jan Bos" hyacinths and a bag of twenty Dutch crocus. The shallow pots (reused) and good potting soil were already staples in my house. Having read forcing advice before, I had a vague idea what I'd need to do. As usual, vague was good enough for me. I trusted my memory and made my plans.
The weather was gorgeous during Thanksgiving week. Between turkey preparations, I snuck outside to pot up my bulbs. Each eight-inch pot got three inches of soil, then three or four hyacinths, another inch of soil and a large handful of crocus to fill in. Sounds crowded? It is, by most standards of bulb planting. These pots will be viewed like houseplants and should be lush. I watered the pots, sat back and pondered how best to provide thirteen weeks of chill for the bulbs to root. I figured my best choice was my garden shed. I wrapped each pot in newspaper, and placed them in a medium sized cardboard box. Then I stuffed the box with dry oak leaves to provide an insulating blanket all around. I hoped that the unheated shed, in my zone 7 Maryland yard, would provide the required range of 35 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit without too much extreme in temperature.
Oh, the waiting. After a few weeks I peeked. Nothing was happening at the surface but that was actually to be expected. The bulbs should develop roots first. I mustered my self control and covered them back up. It dawned on me that my impulsive project may have been started a little late. I wasn't sure if my forced bulbs were going to arrive in bloom any earlier than the ones in my yard. Oh well, live and learn! No going back now.
Another peek in mid January. There's a pale but beautiful sprout! Of course, any new sprout in January is beautiful to plantholics like me. Now reassured of some kind of progress I again checked the calendar and decided to 'unearth' (unbox?) the pots on February twenty-fourth.
The appointed day
Finally, it was time to open the box and bring the pots into the light. Oh joy! There were the fat cones of hyacinth and thin spikes of crocus I'd been dreaming of. Scenes of rot disappeared, replaced by visions of perfect colorful blooms on my windowsill. Carefully lifting the pots overhead, I saw small white roots emerging from the drainage holes. These bulbs had studied the books better than I had.
Keep your cool
Now the new leaves needed light. Their bulb energy diminishing, it was time for these babies to start feeding themselves. At the same time, they need to keep their cool. Still on the economy plan (that lottery ticket didn't do its job) I scrounged up a metal reflector and 100 watt compact fluorescent bulb. The pots went to the coolest place in my house, on the floor of the unfinished basement. A day or two of bright light and fertilizer had the leaves considerably greener.
A race to the end
This last phase of the project moved quickly, maybe too quickly. All the bulbs' leaves were growing. The crocuses began blooming after ten days under the light while the hyacinth buds were just emerging. The various colors of crocus bloomed separately and then wilted. Long, wispy crocus foliage threatened to ruin the display of hyacinth flowers. A spectacular show it was not.
But soon, the stars of this show came onstage. The bright, deep pink Jan Bos hyacinths were at peak bloom about March 14th. Huge flower heads rose above deep green leaves. This was what I was really waiting for anyway- the intense color and fragrance of hyacinth on my dining room windowsill. At $1.50 per pot for the hyacinths, I produced flowers that compared well with the grocery store offerings priced at seven dollars or more. (Well, OK, those did include a foil pot covering.) Partial success, at least, was mine. Can it be yours?
The basic method
If you're considering forcing hyacinths, I assume you have some bulb and potted plant experience. I'll just list the basic steps to follow:
- Pot them in a shallow pot, close together, and water them. Three bulbs take a six-inch pot.
- Cover and chill the pots 13 weeks in the 35 to 50 degree Fahrenheit range
- Give a well lit, 60 degree Fahrenheit location to grow
- Fertilize and water until the foliage yellows, then you can plant the bulbs in the garden
And I learned from my experience:
- Don't plant other species of bulbs in with them- the bloom time may not coordinate.
- If you want early flowers, don't wait for the end of season clearance on bulbs
- Refresh your memory on the details before you commit
- Even a semi-sucessful garden experiment can be worthwhile!
Frowine, Steven A. Gardening Basics for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Hoboken, 2007.
Bradley, Fern Marshal, and Ellis, Barbara W., editors. Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Rodale Press, Emmaus, 1997.
Ellis, Barbara W. Taylor's Guide to Bulbs. Houghten Mifflin Co., New York, 2001.