David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
Bring on the blooms
Start spring bulbs for winter ‘forcing’
Most people only think of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other spring bulbs as things you plant sometime during October and November and hope they come up the following spring if all goes well.
And most gardeners have great intentions when it comes to buying bulbs they actually will get planted, though many hurry up during the colder parts of November to get them in the ground.
But that leaves many laggers behind, folks with good intentions but maybe short memories or lack of time.
That’s where “forcing” the bulbs comes into play.
Forcing is a term that sounds vaguely like a bullying term. In some ways, it sort of is. The goal is to make the plant do something it normally wouldn’t do, usually at the sake of living a longer life.
The main principle is that plants are potted, given a cold treatment more than turning a shoulder to them, and then “forced” into bloom. In most cases, after successful forcing, the plants are discarded. Gasp!
Many tulip varieties, crocuses, daffodils, squills and hyacinths are easily forced. Varieties most easily forced are usually marked as such in store displays and catalogs. Of course, some are quite common.
Paperwhite narcissus is just one of many of the forms with multiple flowers per stem and great fragrance for a daffodil. Little is needed except a container to force these bulbs. Sadly, they don’t do well outdoors unless you’re in the South.
And then there is the amaryllis. Like the paperwhite, all you need to do is pot them, set them in bright sunlight, keep the soil moist, sit back and wait. In two to four weeks, you’ll have blooms. These are the easy bulbs.
For common bulbs, they need a cold treatment that allows the bulbs to develop roots and the buds to break dormancy. The bulbs then need a warm treatment indoors to force them into bloom.
To pot the bulbs, place one-fourth inch of gravel in the bottom of 6- or 8-inch flower pots that have drain holes. Then loosely fill the pots about half way with a well-drained soil. Humus sold in most garden centers should work. Or, use half garden soil and half coarse sand.
Do not firm the soil; this ruins the drainage and bulbs usually rot.
Set the bulbs so that they are just touching each other, and the pointed tips are just showing above the rim of the pot. This seems backward as the natural tendency is to plant the bulbs deep. Don’t.
You may need to adjust the amount of soil so that bulbs are at the right height. Firm the bulbs into the soil; then add soil between the bulbs to within about 1/2 inch of the pot rim. Water thoroughly.
Store the potted bulbs where they will receive cool weather for about 13 weeks. A basement beverage refrigerator or even the household refrigerator if you can get away with it, an unheated garage, a cold frame, or a protected place outside is satisfactory. Make sure everyone in the household knows that the bulbs are not to be disturbed.
You can even stack the pots on top of each other until you see new growth shooting out of the bulb.
If outdoors, store potted bulbs under mulch such as leaves, straw, or sand, snug against the house or garage. The mulch needs to be 8 to 12 inches deep to prevent the soil from freezing and the pots from cracking. If possible, place the pots in a shallow ditch or hole and cover with the mulch. You may need to use screen wire to keep out mice and other animals.
Indoors or outside, it is important the pots be protected from freezing and kept moist.
In February, bring the pots in a week apart, keep at room temperature of about 50 degrees F for one week then increase the temperature to 60 degrees F. Flowers will develop in about four weeks, hopefully dissipating winter’s gloom over the next several weeks.
After the bulbs are done blooming, keep them around and plant them outdoors as soon as possible and keep your fingers crossed. Nine times out of 10, they’ve spent their energy and won’t survive.
But the one-tenth that does will bloom the following years.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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