Learn how to force bulbs with this easy step by step tutorial! Forcing bulbs for holiday decor or for holiday gifts is a great idea to start now, when fall bulbs are available. You have a variety of healthy stock to choose from this time of year, and it really is an easy project. All is takes is some basic materials, fall bulbs, and a little room to store them until they bloom. And of course the most important part – The foresight to get them going weeks ahead of the holidays! Here is how to force bulbs for easy holiday happiness all around your home.
Which Bulbs to Force
The most popular bulbs to force for the holidays are paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis and hyacinth. The paperwhites are fragrant, delicate and in smaller clusters of flowers in whites and yellows. Amaryllis is a large bulb and a larger plant, with dramatic flowers in a variety of colors. Red is an obvious holiday choice, but try white for a fresh option that can take you through the New Year. Our favorite is a fresh pink/peach called “Apple Blossom”. Hyancinth take the most advance planning, but reward you with fragrant blooms in white, pink and blue! (We prefer the white for the holidays!)
How to Force Paperwhites
Paperwhites are easy to force in a glass container, with just some decorative gravel or stones. Growing bulbs in glass allows you to watch the root systems grow and adds to the organic feel of the plant. Plus, it’s just cool. ;) We like using a taller container to help support the plants as they grow. We also add a little charcoal from the indoor plant section to keep the water smelling sweet.
Purchase firm, full, blemish free bulbs. When forcing in particular, quality counts. Herein lies a controversy… Traditional paper whites are the “Zika” variety, and are known to have a very “select” scent. It’s one of those things in the gardening world, you either love it or hate it. I happen to lie in the latter category. :) Lucky for us, there are varieties that have a much more subtle scent. Our favorite is called ‘Inbar’. They also happen to be a little shorter than your grocery store paper whites too, and therefore less likely to flop over. Keep in mind though, that “Inbar” prefers to be forced in soil, not water.
However, the ‘Zika’ variety is inexpensive and easy to find, and blooms prolifically. It is super easy to grow, and forgiving of mistakes. It also tends to bloom a bit earlier… so if the scent doesn’t offend you, there is a reason it is the most popular variety!
Pour two inches of pebbles that have been rinsed into your vase. Add a tablespoon or two of rinsed charcoal then more pebbles. Place bulbs, root-side down and almost touching one another, on top. Add enough tepid water to reach just to the bottoms of the bulbs. Replenish when the level falls by a quarter inch. Keep in a cool, darker place 7-10 days until good roots form, and then move to a brighter lit, warm spot.
There is a tip going around the internet on how to avoid stems that flop over. There is a theory that if you mix the water with 1:1 vodka ratio, than the stems will grow straighter and stronger. We can’t say we have had any positive success with this, but a lot of experienced bulb growers swear by it. And frankly, its a little bit of an expensive way to water your plants! Remember, you can stake your bulbs if they flop. We recommend bright light as they are budding, and daily rotating of the vase to help avoid that.
For the varieties that prefer it, or to make transport easier for gifts, you might want to force in soil. Plant the bulbs just under the surface of a general, well draining potting soil in any container you choose. Water well, and keep moist. Put in a cool place for 7-10 days until roots form, then move to a bright, warm spot.
These are our paperwhites from last year after about 2 weeks. See how the water level just touches the bottom of the bulb.
Paperwhites will bloom in four to six weeks, so if you are planting as gifts, count backwards in the calendar from the proposed gift giving time. Note: Learn from our mistakes. We skipped the rooting step by putting them directly into the sun filled windows and as a result, we didn’t have the bloom we have had in previous years.
This example of the “Zika” paperwhite from ‘Longfield Gardens‘ is how they should look! Rotate them every day to keep the stalks growing upright.
How to Force Amaryllis
Force Amaryllis in a watertight, shallow container. Fill the container until two thirds full, add charcoal bits as desired. Fill with slightly warm water until they just barely cover the pebbles. If you have a special forcing vase that fits the bulb snugly, you can force Amaryllis without any gravel at all. Lay one Amaryllis bulb on top of the pebbles, root side down. Try to purchase a bulb with fleshy, healthy looking roots. Add more pebbles until you reach the neck of the bulb, to give it support as it grows. Add water as needed so that the water level comes to just under the bottom of the bulb. It’s ok to reach a finger down into the pebbles to check the level every couple of days. The photo on the left, above, shows where the water level should be. The photo on the right has too high a water level, the bulb will rot. Photo by ‘Parade‘.
You can also force amaryllis in soil. Use a well draining soil and plant the bulbs into the container close together. Leave the top third of the bulb above the soil. Water thoroughly, then do not water again until you see signs of life.
Amaryllis bloom in six to eight weeks. So far, learning how to force bulbs is pretty easy, right?
Beautiful Amaryllis in bloom. Photo by ‘Sturtz and Copeland‘.
How to Force Hyacinths
Forcing hyacinths takes some commitment, because you have to chill the bulbs for 12-13 weeks before you plant them to bloom. You can buy pre-chilled bulbs at some nurseries, but even if you get pre chilled it is advisable to pop them in the fridge in a paper bag for 2-3 weeks before planting. Tip: Do not chill bulbs in the same fridge with fruit. The ethylene gas given off by ripening fruit will damage the bulbs and they will not bloom well.
You can force hyacinths in a forcing vase with just water, water in stones, or plant them in soil one inch below the surface. Keep in a cool, dark place until the new growth is 2 inches tall. Then move to a cool window with indirect, bright light. (Keep soil potted bulbs lightly moist.)
Tip : If forcing hyacinths in water, fill the vase with water only to just below the bulb. After the roots emerge, it should not actually touch the bulb. The roots will reach down into the water. Photo by ‘Satori Design‘.
Most bulbs will not re-bloom after forcing, so it’s best to just discard the bulbs.
That’s it! Stock up at fall bulb sales and learn how to force bulbs! Plant extra for gifts, for holiday decor, or plant some every two weeks to keep bulbs flowering right through to spring! If you enjoyed this post, learn how to plant a spring bulb garden outdoors, or check out our post on DIY holiday gift plant projects!Image Credits: Longfield Gardens, Bees and Chicks, Parade, Sturtz & Copeland, Satori Design for Living