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How to Force Flower Bulbs

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When winter is in full swing, gardeners can miss the lovely thrills of seeing flowers bloom. But alas, all is not lost. Learning how to force bulbs indoors is easy, and it’s an old technique that is still used widely today. From centerpieces to entryway pops of color, forcing flower bulbs is a fun way to garden indoors when the weather is biting!

Forcing flower bulbs to bloom indoors during winter is a way to keep gardeners actively growing plants and to brighting the indoor scenery. Even non-gardeners can force spring flower bulbs to bloom to add fragrance and beauty to the interior of their home. Never tried forcing bulbs before? This could be your year!

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Forcing flower bulbs is a fun gardening project to do during the winter, but it can be done at any time of year. Purchase some good quality flower bulbs (Try Brecks for a large variety and great prices!), and use these tips to force them to bloom indoors.

Begin With Good Flower Bulbs 

Purchase good quality bulbs from a reputable garden center, online shop (as I mentioned above) or seed catalog.  Use bulbs that are firm and have no soft spots.

For a good list of quality seed catalogs, see my post on fantastic Seed Companies with Free Catalogs.

Choosing a Container for Planting

Any container that is wide enough to hold the bulbs and is several inches deep to accommodate the root system will work just fine. 

Place a drainage hole in the planting container or place a layer of small aquarium gravel in the bottom so water will drain through the planting medium and into the gravel. We don’t want the bulb to sit in water continually.

Using aquarium gravel as the bottom layer allows the use of unusual containers for forcing spring bulbs.

Place a layer of aquarium gravel in the bottom of the container, then a layer of planting medium and plant the flower bulb. 

Planting Medium for Forced Bulbs

Planting medium differs with each flower bulb variety.

  • Paper whites (a.k.a. Narcissus) can be planted in aquarium gravel, glass beads, or any other loose material that will allow roots to intertwine. Add just enough water to reach the bottom of the bulb. Check water level daily and add water as needed. Place in a sunny, warm location, and paper whites will bloom in 3-4 weeks.
  • Hyacinths and crocuses can be grown in potting soil or a glass of water, as long as the top half of the flower bulb remains above the water.
  • Tulips can be planted in potting soil for forcing indoors. If you can’t distinguish the top from the bottom of a tulip bulb, don’t worry, a tulip bulb will right itself after planting.   
  • Grape Hyacinths need a small, shallow container filled with potting soil for forcing indoors. 
  • Daffodils bulbs should be layered and staggered in a container of potting soil so the blooms will continue for weeks.

Caring for Forced Bulbs

To have your bulbs bloom successfully, they will need to be properly cared for. This isn’t difficult, but it will require a bit of maintenance from the gardener.

* Maintain proper water levels and keep soil moist. 

* After paperwhites have been forced to bloom the bulb is spent and won’t survive being planted in the garden. 

* Other flower bulbs have a chance of recovering and producing new blooms when planted outdoors in spring but it’s best to discard the spent bulbs and start with new ones.

“Pickling” Paper whites

If you’ve ever tried forcing bulbs before, then you may have heard of the technique called “pickling.” This involves adding a small amount of alcohol to the water your bulb absorbs to keep the bulbs from growing too long and leggy, thus needing to be supported.

I myself have come to the dining room one morning, only to find my paperwhites laying on the floor, water all around. They had grown so tall and leggy that they could no longer stay up without support.

To pickle paperwhites, do the following:

  • Begin bulbs as usual in water.
  • Once bulb growth is 1-2 inches high, pour off the water and replace it with a 4-6% alcohol solution. For alcohol that is 80 proof, such as vodka or gin, this is one part alcohol to 7 parts water. (Rubbing alcohol can be substitued, but you’ll want to dilute it more than the consumable alcohol listed above.)
  • My fellow Master Gardener, Jeannie, shared her formula here:

ABSOLUT VODKA (80 PROOF)

½ cup Vodka to 3 ½ cups water    OR 

2 TBSP (1 oz.) Vodka to 14 TBSP (7oz) water

  • Keep this solution in your vase or container instead of pure water, and your paper whites will be noticeably lower but still have fabulous blooms!

For the full research from Cornell University on pickling paperwhites, visit their website here!

Indoor Gardening Projects

Don't let winter weather or lack of garden space keep you from using your green thumb! These indoor gardening activities are the perfect way to garden inside! From DIY planters to forcing bulbs, these indoor garden techniques are sure to suit every gardener.

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