Forcing bulbs in winter spreads beauty year-round

Wednesday, December 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final gardening column from Barbara Michael, who has written about container gardening for the Missourian for the past six years.

COLUMBIA — Would you like to enjoy pretty flowers even during the dead of winter? You can have beauty around you all year by forcing flower bulbs. Forcing bulbs is not hard to do and can be a fun project for children.

There are a variety of bulbs that work well and they all will provide pretty flowers during the cold days of winter.

Bulbs are little factories unto themselves and are packed with the ingredients needed for leaves, buds and nutrients. Many of them grow well year after year in containers. With proper planning you can have pretty flowers blooming all year long.

In buying your bulbs, it's important to remember that size is important. Big bulbs, packed with a lot of food energy, will produce larger flowers. Pick ones that are firm and plump. If the bulb feels soft or squishy, it is probably rotting. It takes bulbs about 12 weeks to bloom, but you can get prechilled ones from garden centers that will cut the wait time down considerably.

Bulbs will grow in just about any pot with adequate drainage. Make sure the pot is big enough to hold the plant after it grows and blooms. Fill the container about three-quarters full of lightweight potting soil, then press the bulbs gently into the soil. The pointed side of the bulb should face upward and be even with the top of the pot. Water it thoroughly and add more soil if necessary.

If they are not prechilled bulbs, then they will need to be placed in a cool, dark place to start the forcing process. An unheated garage, basement, cold storeroom or even the refrigerator will work if no other place is available. Check the bulbs frequently for moisture.

Don't let the plants dry out or the bulbs will die. Plants can be covered with black plastic garbage bags, cardboard boxes or other pots turned upside down to provide the necessary darkness.

The pots will need to stay in the dark for about two to four months, depending on the kind of bulb you planted. Longer cold storage will produce healthier plants.

After the plants are about 2 inches tall, put the pot into indirect sunlight for about 10 days where the temperature is in the 50s.

When the flower buds are showing some color, they can be moved to full light in a place that's not too warm. Flowers should start blooming quickly afteward.

After they are done blooming, continue watering them until the foliage dies down.

It is important to remember that bulbs that have been in the garden outside can be re-used indoors, but bulbs that have been forced indoors cannot be re-used.

The exceptions are paper whites and amaryllis, which are good bulbs to consider for indoors.

Some others to consider for indoor forcing are: daffodils, narcissus, early flowering tulips, crocuses, hyacinths, Dutch irises, calla lilies, gloxinias, freesias, lily of the valley, tuberous begonias and tuber roses.

Flowers blooming all year, especially in the winter, help to add harmony, serenity and fragrance to our lives.

For a fun book about bulbs check out "A Bulb for All Seasons: How to Grow a Bulb-a-Month Indoors for a Year of Flowering Houseplants" by Quin Ellis.

Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993 and serves as the Master Gardeners’ liaison to the Community Garden Coalition, in addition to serving on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at

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