by BRIAN MINTER
October 1, 2003
Winter months can be long and dreary without a little spice to brighten them up, and nothing brings spring closer than a pot of fresh spring flowers. If you'd like to enjoy some indoor colour this coming January, now is the time to get those bulbs underway.
Forcing bulbs into bloom is an age old tradition and is really quite simple. Once planted, all the pots should be placed outside in the garden or on a balcony and kept cool but free from frost (between 45°F - 55°F). I've found the best way to do this is to cover them with plenty of bark mulch or peat moss. Keep the pots moist and add extra covering if we get hit by a real cold spell. Only certain bulbs, however, lend themselves to indoor forcing. You must select early-blooming bulbs because later-flowering varieties are simply impractical.
My favourite bulbs to force are the amazing new ‘Golden Bells’ and 'Tete-a-Tete' narcissus, fragrant hyacinths, early double 'Triumph' and early single tulips, tiny blue 'Iris reticulata', yellow 'Iris danfordiae', snowdrops and crocuses. It's important to select the largest size of each variety because you are trying to bring a large flower to bloom in about half the normal time.
Each group of bulbs should be planted in pots relative to their size. For example, tiny bulbs such as snowdrops look great in four inch pots, while large hyacinth bulbs are more at home in six inch pots. Place as many bulbs in a pot as will fit nicely. Poke them gently into sterilized soil so that their noses just peek out. Throw lots of clean sand on top to hold them in place as their roots begin to develop, then water the daylights out of them.
One note about tulips: plant the flat side of the bulb against the pot. This way the large strap-like leaves will be on the outside and your pot will look better. After 6 to 12 weeks, depending upon the root development, the bulbs should be almost ready to come inside. The only way to be sure of the timing is to lift the pots out of their protective covering and gently squeeze the shoots. If you can feel the flower inside the shoots, the bulbs are ready to come indoors. If the flower has not yet come out of the bulb, the pots must stay outside for another week or two.
Indoor forcing bulbs, like 'Paperwhite' narcissus and 'prepared' hyacinths, can be easily brought to bloom by simply nestling them on a few stones with some water underneath and placing them in a cool window. From my experience, these bulbs tend to stretch and look rather leggy unless they are kept at temperatures below 60°F and are given lots of indirect light.
Indoor bulbs can also be potted up and treated like outdoor forcing bulbs for a very fast turnaround and a dramatic improvement in the quality of their blooms.
To develop a superior flower once the pots are inside, the bulbs need to be kept as cool and as well lit as possible. Water them frequently and make sure they have good air circulation. The forcing of bulbs is so inexpensive, and it really is very little work. So why not pick up a few bulbs today - on a dreary cold day in January, you'll be glad you did!