rooting tulipsIt may be cold. And windy. And fairly miserable at six in the morning when you’ve misplaced the car scraper. But with a little know-how and a bag of bulbs, we can bring the sights and scents of spring into our living rooms and offices.

Some will point out that we can bring the sights and scents of spring into our living rooms and offices by buying a bunch of yellow tulips at the grocery store and throwing in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s to solve any underlying issues; and I admit that this is true.

However, bulb forcing is more economical, lasts longer, and allows us to witness the slowly unfolding miracle of spring growth – not just the cellophane-packaged result.

You don’t need to live in the cold, white North to force bulbs. You don’t have to have a garden. You don’t have to have a green thumb.

That’s where the true beauty of bulb forcing lies: We take advantage of somebody else’s work and energy conveniently harnessed in the storage system that is a bulb, and create magic in our own worlds.

It’s about bringing the beauty of spring indoors before we actually deserve it.

Forcing bulbs: Get yourself in the right frame of mind

The first thing to remember when forcing bulbs is that this will be a short term fling ‘twixt gardener and bulb – a one-sided relationship if you will. The bulb will give you all its pretty years carefully stored in that young curvy body, and you will give it nothing but water, heat and light, and ruthlessly toss it aside when it grows old and grey and full of sleep.

You are not to feel guilty about this, or before you know it you’ll be nursing spent, withered bulbs in the garage in February and nursing spent withered bulbs in a back bed of the garden in March, which will then be eaten by squirrels in September.

Remember, if you have a compost pile – nothing is wasted.


tulip bulbs in water


Forcing bulbs: Get yourself containers

You do not need soil to force bulbs, nor do you need special containers.

Any tall, sealed pot/vase/mason jar will do – and the taller the better so as to give support to leggy bulbs like paperwhites. Glass is often preferred in order that you can adequately monitor water levels and have the fun of watching the roots develop.

Your medium will be gravel – a mid-sized pea gravel which allows the roots to grip and steady themselves, but is not too fine or coarse to make this difficult. Rinse it thoroughly before using.

If you already have a forcing vessel, you no doubt have a plastic toothed ‘flower frog’ that fits that vessel perfectly. Guard this with your life and never let your teenager put it in the dishwasher.

Forcing bulbs: Get yourself some bulbs

Hopefully this involves opening the door of the cold garage/potting shed or fridge and getting the package out. If you follow my Facebook page, you might have seen the gentle reminder to pick up a bag of tulips, or paperwhites, or hyacinths during the autumn back-to-school/work/life scramble.

If you didn’t, and you didn’t, I’ve got two options for you.

1) Check with your favorite online bulb source. Some bulb suppliers sell bulbs which they have pre-chilled so gardeners in warmer climates can plant them for spring. (Most bulbs need a specific amount of chill-hours to bloom.) These bulbs also work well for forcing. If you forgot to buy bulbs in autumn, this is the first place to look.

2) Head to your local florist, Big Box, or grocery store floral section. As the popularity of bulb forcing has taken off in the last few years, many of these merchants now sell glass vessels for the purpose – filled with a variety of bulbs rooted and ready to go. If you’ve never forced bulbs before, this is a great way to get started and will leave you with a purpose-made container for next year’s efforts.


tulip bulbs being forced


Once you’ve secured your bulbs, sort them. Pick the plumpest specimens with no sign of fungal disease or rot and discard the others. Of those you have selected, put some back in the fridge to start in about three weeks’ time. Successive pots of flowering bulbs are crucial to late winter/early spring sanity levels.

Forcing bulbs: Start the process

Fill your container one third full of gravel and place the bulbs firmly into that base, covering ever so slightly with a bit more to secure them. Try to keep a tiny amount of space between bulbs to discourage rot. Add water just to the base of the bulbs, and keep that level constant during the life of this love affair.

A note about water. In years past, when I was on a city water supply, I never had any issues with my bulbs. However, that changed once we moved over to a well.

The bulbs rooted, but soon the roots grew brittle and stunted and the emerging shoot failed. We might think the water tastes better, but my bulbs (and water-rooted cuttings) do not appreciate it. I have lazily put this down to excess iron, but instead of doing any further research (hey I’m busy at this time of year) I simply buy gallons of drinking water and use this to start and top up my forcing vessels.

Once your bulbs are placed and the water is added, some experts will tell you to stow the container away in a dark place. I have never found this to be necessary, and besides I’m in a pretty dark place as it is in late winter. There is a great deal of joy to be reaped by watching these bulbs develop into spring flowers and I wouldn’t want to waste it on the contents of my linen closet.

Forced bulbs can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to develop and bloom, but again, the process is the point.

These vessels make a fantastic centerpiece for a dining room or foyer table, and provide a conversation starter while everyone is chomping their root vegetables and wondering when local asparagus will hit the markets. Plus, they make you look like a plant whisperer – both to yourself and to others – and that, as we all know, is half the battle when it comes to gardening.



This article was originally published in The Frederick News Post and is republished here with kind permission.


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