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Suzanne Cammerano is a freelance landscape designer with 15 years of varied experience in horticulture. She has been a professional gardener for Somerset County Parks Commission as well as private clients, a volunteer for a nonprofit community gardens program in Trenton, a designer?s assistant, and has worked in landscape sales/design/build for local nurseries. This blog takes a light and friendly approach to gardening, with a focus on helping local readers identify and find great plants and accessories, public gardens and garden events, and improve their landscapes with timely tips and hints.

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Forcing Bulbs

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It's the dead of winter and your garden is under a blanket of snow. What's a gardener to do?

Forcing flower bulbs is an easy way to get your hands dirty now, and enjoy a great flower display at the end of winter when most gardeners are feeling desperate for a taste of spring.

The Bulbs

Early-spring bloomers will generally take less time to force than later-blooming bulbs. Try crocus, early daffodils, early tulips, galanthus (snowdrops), hyacinths, muscari (grape hyacinths)and iris reticulata. These are all cold-hardy bulbs which need a chilling period of 8-10 weeks in order to bloom.

If you would rather try forcing bulbs without a cold period, try paperwhite narcissus or amaryllis.

The Pot

Make sure your pot is deep enough to accommodate the bulb from top to bottom, plus at least an inch of growing medium below the bulb. You'll need to leave about a half-inch of space between the top of the pot and the finished surface of the soil. Clay pots are less likely to retain enough moisture to rot the bulbs, but plastic pots are suitable if you are careful not to keep them too wet.

The Growing Medium

Use a soilless potting mix with a handful of peat and a handful of grit and mix thoroughly. Add bone meal or granular bulb food at a rate of 1 oz per gallon of soil. Moisten the mix before you plant your bulbs.

The Process

Fill your pot with growing medium and plant the bulbs so that, ideally, there is enough room for twice the height of the bulb, or at least one inch of soil under the bulb. Leave one bulb's-width between bulbs. You can plant pretty close to the edge of the pot. If you are planting tulip bulbs, face the flat part of the bulb to the outside of the pot.

Cover smaller bulbs completely, leaving a half-inch between the top of the soil and the top of the pot. Larger bulbs like daffodils and tulips may be left to poke out of the top of the soil. Dress with grit, if desired, which neatens the appearance of the pot and helps retain moisture.

If you have chosen hardy bulbs, they will need to be refrigerated, placed in a cold basement or garage, or outdoors in a protected spot for 8-10 weeks, depending on the bulb type. You are trying to maintain a temperature of about 35-40 degrees F.

Periodically check to be sure the soil is moist (not wet), and look for signs that your bulbs are ready to come out of dormancy: shoots will begin to grow and you should see roots at the bottom of the container. When they are ready, bring your pots to a warmer location with low light. Once the shoots begin to green up and grow taller, you can put them in direct sunlight.

The Epilogue

Your bulbs will bloom longer if you move them to a cool area at night. When they are spent, you can either plant them out in the garden in spring, or allow them to go dormant in the pot and save the bulbs for planting outside in the fall.

Amaryllis bulbs can be placed on their side in a dark place until fall, when you bring them back to a sunny windowsill and begin watering and fertilizing them. Amaryllis will reward you by increasing in size and number of blooms if you make the effort to revive them in successive years.


Moderated by Sue Camerano.

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