Force Bulbs for a Winter Bloom

Have you ever seen those expensive kits you can mail-order with bulbs that are guaranteed to flower for the holidays or the New Year? It turns out you can create one of those yourself with very little trouble or gardening knowledge. All you have to do is pick the kind of flowers you want and decide when you’d like to see them bloom. Forcing bulbs is an easy process, but it is important to know how to coax those early blooms and when to start.

Most bulbs require a chilling period of some length that can be replicated by artificially inducing cold and then allowing the bulbs to flower by simulating early spring conditions. Artificially chilling bulbs is easy with a cold garage or storage area and enough time. Establish how much chill time you need by checking the label on the bulbs you buy or by looking in a trusted gardening book. Most bulbs require between 12-16 weeks chill time at 38-45 F and then growing time before they flower.

Choose healthy looking bulbs with no sunken or withered spots. With bulbs, what you see is often what you get. Because these are actually storage organs, picking fat, firm, and heavy bulbs helps ensure that the bulbs will produce good and lasting flowers. Once the bulbs are chosen, it is time to pot them up.

Use a commercial potting mix, and don’t worry about fertilizing. Bulbs store their own nutrients, and won’t need extra nutrients to bloom. Choose special bulb-potting containers called bulb pans, or use whatever clean containers you have. If old containers are used, clean them first with a mild bleach solution to remove any mold spores or bacteria living there.

Make sure the pots used have adequate drainage; bulbs may rot if kept too wet. Pot the bulbs on top of a shallow layer of soil close together, leaving just the tips of the bulbs peeking out. Place the bulbs so that they are almost touching for a full and beautiful blooming container.

Hide the container in a cold dark spot and wait until the chill requirement is met. If the actual chill time in your area will not be sufficient to produce blooms in the time you’d like, the pots can be stored in a refrigerator to produce the same effect. Keep in mind that extra chill time will not hurt the bulbs, but they will not flower well without the minimum number of chill hours.

Water them occasionally to prevent them from totally drying out. When the bulbs are chilled, pull one or two out to check for root development. When you see roots and about 2 inches of shoot growth, the pots are ready to bring into the light.

Gradually introduce the plants to indoor conditions by bringing them into a cool room with indirect light first, then moving them into a brighter, warmer place after two weeks. When the buds begin to show color, place the pots in a warmer spot (about 70 F) with bright light, like next to a sunny window, and water the soil thoroughly. As the buds grow and unfold, some may benefit from staking.

When the flowers have bloomed, move the plants out of direct sun and away from heat sources to encourage them to last as long as possible. After the blooms have faded, let the bulbs die back naturally. Plant them in the garden, where they may bloom again, although it may take a year to recover. Try again next year with different bulbs, and experiment with different species.

SOURCE: Melissa Miles, Extension Graduate Assistant Auburn University Department of Horticulture, and Dr. Dave Williams, Extension Horticulturist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-3032