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Forcing Bulbs in Containers

The Martha Stewart Show, November 2010

Who says you need to wait until spring for fresh, homegrown flowers? Using a technique called bulb forcing, you can achieve beautiful blooms even in the dead of winter.

Forcing is basically adjusting temperature and light to mimic natural flowering settings, says Brent Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs. "We're fooling Mother Nature into tricking the bulb to bloom before its natural time."

Depending on when you start the process, you could see blooms as early as December. Bulbs planted in November will bloom in early March.

Bulb Forcing How-To

1. Working in layers, plant bulbs in a container filled with coarse potting soil, ensuring that no bulb is planted directly above another bulb. Plant the tallest flowers deepest in the pot, and move up with shorter and shorter varieties. Cover each neck with 1 inch of soil. Water.

2. Place the container in a cool area -- approximately 50 to 60 degrees -- for one to two weeks, until fully rooted. Reduce temperature to 35 to 45 degrees for 12 to 16 weeks. 

Note: Possible cool areas include the refrigerator (with fruits and vegetables removed) or a Styrofoam cooler in an unheated garage. You can also bury the plants outside under a high pile of leaves or mulch, at least 6 to 10 inches deep, preferably on the north side of a building in the shade.

3. Check pots biweekly, and water lightly if the soil appears dry.

4. When sprouts form, bring the container into the forcing environment, usually a sunny spot in your home. As flowers bloom, continue to water them as you would any houseplant. Once spring arrives, it's safe to transfer them outdoors.

Best Bulbs to Force
Most bulbs are suitable for forcing, but not all -- alliums, for example, resist such manipulation of their natural cycles. Ask your local garden-supply store about the flowers you're interested in forcing, or try one of these surefire varieties:

  • Narcissus 'Stainless'
  • Tulip 'Pieter de Leur'
  • Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant'
  • Muscari armeniacum 'Blue Spike'
  • Anemone blanda 'White Splendour'

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