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Former Program Coordinator, Horticulture
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Thursday, November 17, 2016
Winter in Illinois is long for gardeners and by late February I start looking outside -desperate for any sign of plant life. Tired of waiting for the first crocus to appear, I have become somewhat addicted to forcing bulbs. It's not difficult and you can enjoy hyacinths, tulips and daffodils from late January thru March. It makes those months significantly less dreary and you will enjoy every petal of your indoor garden.
The best time to start the process is in October however it is not too late to have tulips indoors before the first daffodil blooms outdoors. The key will be giving the bulbs enough of a cooling period. Basically that means the bulb requires about twelve to fourteen weeks of cool (35-50 degrees) but not freezing temperatures. A garage, cellar or cold dark basement will all suffice. Refrigeration also works however it is important the bulbs are not stored with fruit like apples which produce a gas that can cause premature growth and no flower.
Containers with chilled bulbs may be brought indoors after about 12 weeks, some require closer to 14 weeks. The length of time depends on the individual variety. The bulbs should flower about three to four weeks after you bring them indoors. If you start early enough you can have a steady succession of blooms by staggering when you bring your containers inside. Some bulbs like Paperwhites and Amaryllis don't need a cold treatment because they developed in an area of the world that does not have cold winters.
Feel free to get creative with your containers. Last year, I used a small copper teapot I found at a thrift store. A word of warning-if there is not a drainage hole at the bottom of the container water carefully- otherwise the bulbs will rot. Most plants require good drainage and this rule is mandatory for almost all bulbs.
Hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips are the most popular choices because they are easy to find in our area and are reliable when forced. Buy firm bulbs that feel heavy for their size. Small, paper dry, moldy or mushy bulbs are not worth your time or money.
Use a potting mix that drains well-never garden soil which is too heavy and may contain insect eggs or plant diseases. The planting mix does not require organic material because nature has already stored all the energy it needs to flower. Plant the bulbs just below the surface reserving as much space as possible for the roots to develop. Outdoors bulbs are planted much deeper to insulate them from cold temperatures and protect from hungry rodents. Hyacinths and narcissus can be forced in water using special glass vases or dishes with stones. Make sure the water only touches the base of the bulb –again you want to avoid having the bulbs rot.
In containers the bulbs will flower for just one season so you can maximize their effect by planting closely together -almost touching with their tips slightly above the surface. Place tulip bulbs flat side out so the largest leaves hang over the edge of the pot. Water the bulbs after planting. The soil-less mix should not be saturated but also not be allowed to dry out completely.
Gardeners often toss these bulbs after they are done flowering. However many people will plant them outdoors adding a few scoops of compost to the hole. The bulbs may not flower the next year -needing time to absorb nutrients and store energy but will often re-bloom. Nature is resilient.