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How to Force Spring Bulbs

Date:10/21/2020
Author:Terry Baldwin
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yellow daffodils by window
Photo by Eunice Choi on Unsplash

A snowstorm rages in the dead of winter. The sky is gray. Your feelings are gray. One way to fix this misery? A mini garden of spring flowers blooming inside your house. You can make this happiness happen—it’s easy—but you have to start in the fall.

The process of making spring bulbs bloom indoors is called forcing. Forcing bulbs is making the bulbs believe they’ve spent the winter planted outside in the ground, like Mother Nature intended, and that spring has come and heck yeah it’s bloom time.

PLAN AHEAD

To force your bulbs, you’ll need to plant them in pots and then chill them for at least 12 weeks, sometimes longer. For January or February flowers, you'll plant September-November. Here in Michigan, I’ve planted bulbs as late as December with good results.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

2 empty plant pots and daffodil bulbs in front of a large bag of potting mix

All you need is are containers and planting medium. Because the bulbs will be in pots for only a few months, just about any type of container will work. I like to use a shallow garden bowl. I also plant bulbs in cleaned plastic nursery pots to be placed in decorative containers later. Ideally the container has a drainage hole.

CHOOSING BULBS

Most bulbs can be forced—the hard part is choosing. Narcissus (daffodils) and tulips alone have thousands of varieties in many colors. It’s fun to mix small flowers, like grape hyacinths, with taller daffodils or tulips. Just check the labels to make sure they will bloom about the same time.

One thing to be aware of is squirrels, chipmunks, and mice love to eat tulip and crocus bulbs. If you plant them, be sure to protect your pots or store them in an enclosed cabinet or refrigerator. To be on the safe side, plant daffodils. They’re toxic and critters avoid them.

HOW TO PLANT

4 daffodil bulbs on the ground

Insert bulbs root side down. With some bulbs, it’s hard to tell which end is the root. Most bulbs have a pointy top and a fibrous, rough bottom.

It’s OK to pack bulbs tightly—this makes for a more lavish display. Single bulbs planted in small pots are also elegant. Do not bury the bulbs completely. Leave them partially exposed. Lightly water and make sure the bulbs are firmly snuggled in the planting medium.

daffodil bulbs planted in round planter

Place the pots in a cool, dark, place where temperatures are consistently 35° to 48° F. This can be an unheated garage, porch or basement, a refrigerator, or a cold frame. If necessary, cover the pots to keep light out.

I store my pots of bulbs in the coldest part of my garage underneath a box or a larger, heavy pot (leaving space for bulbs to sprout). When temperatures fall below freezing, I move the pots deeper into the garage where it’s a little warmer.

Check pots every couple weeks, watering them lightly—just a whisper of water—to avoid rot.

You may start to see growth at the tips as early as December, but you can leave them be.

sprouting daffodil bulbs in planter

Keep bulbs chilled and in the dark until the sprouts are about 2 inches long. Then, you can bring the pots into your home, where they’ll green up and continue to grow (keep them out of direct sun).

3 pots of sprouting daffodil bulbs

TIP: If you have several pots, bring them up one week at a time for a succession of blooms.

daffodils blooming in blue-green ceramic pot

small yellow daffodils and purple grape hyacinth flowers blooming in painted flower pot
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

potted pink hyacinths and yellow daffodils blooming on a windowsill
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

You can even pop your forced bulbs into outdoor pots, where they’ll bloom cheerfully.

yellow daffodils and purple grape hyacinth flowers blooming in outdoor pot

After bulbs have finished flowering, I replant them outside. Daffodils are more likely to rebloom than tulips. Leave them in the pots, but don’t water. When the foliage begins to wither, plant the bulbs outdoors with leaves still attached. I’ve tossed spent forced daffodils in the compost pile and found them blooming the following spring!

If you’re now inspired to try forcing bulbs, keep in mind that spring bulbs are sold starting in late summer, and they can sell out by late October in some stores. If you can’t plant them right away, store them in a cool, dry place (not the refrigerator).

For a deeper dive, check out this article from the University of Missouri Extension.

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