As the days become shorter, we start to see signs that the outdoor growing season is coming to an end. Summer annuals and perennials set seeds for the birds and other wildlife to eat. The trees shed their leaves. As gardeners, many of us still have the urge to nurture color, scent, and life into the slowly greying pallet of the shortening winter days. In this week’s blog, I’m going to talk about how you can do just that by forcing spring-blooming bulbs for a succession of fabulous early-to-late winter blooms.
You can grow amaryllis, paperwhites, Soleil D’or and Tete-a-Tete narcissus, daffodils, fragrant muscari and hyacinth, tulips, crocus, and iris reticulata indoors with proper timing, a cool space, and a little effort. Now is the time to start potting up and chilling your spring bulbs to fool them into thinking its winter. There are some bulbs that are from more temperate regions or that are prechilled that you can start later; these would include the amaryllis, paperwhites, and Soleil D’or narcissus.
To chill your bulbs, you will need to pot them in a damp, well- draining potting mix. I choose Mcenroe potting soil for its weight and its moisture-holding ability. Plant the bulbs with the root end down, and fill in the soil up to just below the top of the bulb for larger bulbs like daffodils and tulips. For smaller bulbs, like muscari and crocus, cover the tip with a half inch of soil.
Place the pot in a cold place, between 35 and 45 degrees for the prescribed amount of time listed below. Storing pots in the refrigerator works well, although you should avoid storing fruit in the fridge while your bulb are in there as fruit gives off a gas that will harm the developing flowers.
You can use any pots to plant the bulbs in. I have used terra cotta (although it dries out faster), glazed pots, soup tureens, and tea cups as pots for smaller bulbs. Any container will do as long as you have a depth of about 3 times the size of the bulb. You can plant them close together for the best flower show.
While the bulbs are chilling, check them once a week to make sure they are not drying out. Water to moisten the soil, not soaking it. Check the bulbs for root development. If the bulbs have set roots, within the chilling time prescribed, you can bring them out into a warm sunny window and watch them grow. Move them into a cooler location after flowering begins to extend the flowering time.
You can plant hyacinth bulbs in water in a glass dish or hyacinth container. Fill the container with water just up to the root base and chill for the prescribed length of time, bringing it into the warmth after its chill time is up and it has set roots.
When some bulbs are forced they may not come back a second year when planted outdoors. The bulbs I have had success with replanting in the garden are Tete-a-Tete daffodils, muscari (grape hyacinth), and crocus. Keep their foliage alive by watering and keep them in a sunny window until planting outdoors in the spring.
Amaryllis, paperwhites and Soleil D’or are bulbs that do not need pre-chilling in order to flower. Plant your amaryllis bulbs in a deep pot with drainage. The pot should be 2 inches wider than the diameter of the bulb and have 4-5 inches of depth beneath the bulb when planted. Cover the bulb with soil ½ to ¾ of the way up the bulb. Water well and put in a warm location. Keep the soil moderately moist, not wet. As soon as the flower bud appears move the pot to a sunny window. When flowering move the pot to a cooler location to prolong blooming.
I like to keep my amaryllis foliage alive after blooming by watering and fertilizing the plant, moving it outdoors into a sunny spot in the spring. In midsummer I let the plant dry out, move it to a darker location and let the bulb go dormant as the foliage dies back. In October I begin to water it, bring it back into the light and let the whole growth process begin again.
Paperwhites and Soleil D’or narcissus can be forced in water, with stones or marbles, or put into soil. When forcing them in water, plant the bulbs up to their necks in the stones or marbles. Fill the container with water up to just above the root base, maintain that water level throughout the growth of the plant. When planting in soil, cover the bulbs ½-¾ of the way up the bulbs with soil. Keep the soil moderately moist and place in a sunny window until the flower buds appear. Moving them into a cooler location after bloom will prolong the flowering time.
When planting narcissus in water you can replace the water, after the first buds appear, with a solution of 1 part vodka to 7 parts water. This will keep the foliage and flower stalk from getting too tall and flopping over. Paperwhites and amaryllis will need 4-8 weeks to bloom from planting time. Soleil D’or, with its adorable yellow and orange flowers and fragrance like heaven, takes about 8-10 weeks to bloom.
Planting times for cold hardy bulbs
- Spring-blooming crocus: 8-10 weeks
- Hyacinth: 12-14 weeks
- Iris Reticulata: 10-12 weeks
- Muscari(grape hyacinth): 8-10 weeks
- Daffodils: 14-18 weeks
- Tulips: 14-18 weeks
Start making a game plan for bringing a garden of color into your home this winter. Clear out the fridge and come on down to Fifth Season Gardening for all your indoor and outdoor bulbs, flowering and tropical plants, soil, containers and amendments.