It may be cold. And windy. And fairly miserable at six in the morning when you’ve misplaced the car scraper. But let me remind you that we have already passed the shortest day of the year mark and there is hope yet ahead.

Tulips1If my words seem empty (they certainly do to me at the moment), perhaps you just need a few blooms to focus your mind on the kinder, gentler days of spring.

In short: It’s time to bend some bulbs to your will.

If you follow the Facebook page for Small Town Gardener, 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 ignored that advice and have a tendency towards bitterness, you may want to move on to another article.  If you bought a bag of bulbs, or would like to know why you should have, let’s get started.

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 ruthlessly use it for its beauty, give it nothing but water, heat and light, and just as ruthlessly toss it aside when it grows old and grey and full of sleep.


Spring inside. Winter outside.

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 bolstering spent withered bulbs in a back bed of the garden in March which will then be eaten by plump, happy voles in September.  Remember, if you have a compost pile (The Holy Absolver of Guilt) – nothing is wasted.  After many years of self-flagellation on this issue, I am finally at peace and want nothing more than to help you avoid yet another horticultural opportunity for self-reproach.

Second, you do not need soil to force bulbs, nor do you need special containers. Granted, the sight of a burgeoning hyacinth bulb perched on the narrow waist of a forcing vessel with roots flowing gracefully into a reservoir of life-giving water, is one of the reasons I like to get up in the morning, but it is actually unnecessary.  Any tall, sealed pot/vase/mason jar will do – 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 medium sized pea gravel which allows the roots to grip and steady themselves, but is not too fine or coarse to make that difficult.

Now, select your bulbs.  Hopefully this involves opening the door of the cold garage/potting shed or fridge and getting the package out.  If you’ve inadvertently stored your bulbs in a warm space, and they have already sprouted and twisted, you may be out of luck.

Sort the bulbs and pick the plumpest specimens with no sign of fungal disease or rot – discarding the others (remember: one-sided relationship).  Of those you have selected, put some back in the fridge to start in about two weeks’ time. (February is very grim, remember?)

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

Can you tell my favorite bulbs to force are tulips?

Can you tell my favorite bulbs to force are tulips?

Some experts will tell you to then 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 February. 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.

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.  They are far more economical than a bunch of greenhouse flowers, and make you look like a plant whisperer – which as we all know is half the battle when it comes to gardening.

It’s a win-win.  For the gardener that is.  For the bulbs, not so much. Still, il faut souffrir pour être belle, and when we want something outside the parameters of its natural season, you can bet it will come at a price.