Forcing bulbs

This time of year it seems I always have a yearning to pot up some bulbs for forcing. . . I’ve done tulips, daffodils, hyancinths, and amaryllis.  So, now, true confession time—of all of these, only the amaryllis and hyacinths actually bloomed.  Well, that’s not exactly precise, I guess—I did do a pot of mixed bulbs once, and some of the daffodils bloomed.  Well, a couple.

Here’s the deal.  I love having flowers in February or March, but the only times I’ve ever been successful with forcing bulbs has been when I’ve actually put the pots in the fridge for 8 weeks or so.  Needless to say, Trevor isn’t thrilled with the idea of utilizing our entire bottom shelf of the fridge for dirt.  (He’s so particular sometimes, isn’t he?)

Last fall, after planting the 300 daffodils, I actually used the ones I couldn’t quite fit in (ok, so I didn’t plant quite 300—more like probably 250) in a couple of big ceramic pots.  I stuffed them pretty full—I’m guessing I had at least 20 in each pot.

Remember these?

The problem, then, was that I did not actually have room for two huge pots in my fridge (not a big surprise).  So, I thought, well, I’ll leave them in the garage until Christmas or so, at which point they should be suitably dormant, and then I’ll fool them into thinking they’re still outside (but not exposed to the killing temperatures of Minnesota in January) by putting them in the dark and fairly cool basement.

Which I did.  And they never bloomed.  In early March or late February, I moved them upstairs to a sunny window and watered them well.  They actually sent up a few pathetic little shoots. . . and then perished.

I’m not sure what happened.

Ok, in all honesty, it’s quite possible that after that first watering they didn’t get much more. . . and I guess it’s possible that was the cause of their demise.  But I don’t really think that was it—they never did really seem to get going.

I’ve also tried to leave pots outside over the winter, surrounded by bags of leaves or something insulating, but that never seems to work either.  Eight weeks in the fridge
seems to be the only tried-and-true way of getting it done.  But I don’t have the fridge space to spare.

I’ve actually tried to convince Trevor of the wisdom of getting a spare fridge for the sole purpose of forcing bulbs, but so far he hasn’t gone for it.  :)


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11 Responses to Forcing bulbs

  1. Sheri says:

    How cold does it get in your garage? Maybe that would be like a fridge? especially the side closer to the house.

  2. Iola says:

    Sandi, Sorry to hear you aren’t having luck forcing bulbs. I have had sucess with tulips, crocus, daffodils, hyacinths. I don’t plant the bulbs in dirt before the “cooling” process. I simply put the bulbs in a refrigerator in a mesh bag and store in a darker, out-of-the-way part of the refrigerator for at least 8 weeks. The secret is that you cannot have fresh fruit in the refrig at the same time. Some on-line research will give you info on the gases that fruits emit that destroy the flower. After the “cooling” period, plant blubs in dirt and you should have beautiful blooms. My best luck is with the hyacinths. These will bloom by simply putting them in a vase so that only the bottom 2/3 of the bulb is in water. Good luck

    • Sandi says:

      That is so great–I can’t BELIEVE it never occurred to me to put the bulbs in the fridge BEFORE I planted them in the dirt–genius! I will definitely try this–thanks for the info! :)

  3. Phyllis Paulson says:

    Have you tried paper white narcissus?

    • Sandi says:

      I have–but I just can’t stand the smell of them when they bloom! :) So I only did them once. As I recall, though, they WERE easy to do. :)

  4. Sean Williams says:

    Your blog is flawless.

  5. Jasper says:

    Dear Sandi,

    Time/Life has a great, inexpensive book on bulbs that explains in detail how to force bulbs, the temperatures each needs for forcing to work, and the time line for when to start the forcing period for blooms at a particular time. It also covers much more and is simple to use. I strongly recommend it and would give you the title, but I’m not at home, which is where the book is.

    Your experience pretty much has revealed the truth to you: absent use of certain bulbs that allow forcing without a hibernation period (the 8 weeks in the fridge), you need the full hibernation period. Amaryllis are sold ready to go, but if you save an amaryllis bulb from year to year, it, too, requires special handling, although no refridgerator time. Another bulb that will do well without refridgerator time is narcissus, but you want the paperwhite variety (or one of the other listed daffodils or narcissus that say they’ll bloom in about 4-6 weeks without forcing). Also, not all bulbs force as well as others and a book, like the one I recommended, helps steer you in the direction of the ones that work best. By starting with the right bulbs, you’ll increase your success ratio significantly, which means less space needed in the fridge (or wherever) for loads of blooms!

    If you have some place that you can keep the bulbs cold at about 50 degrees or so, that will work in lieu of a refridgerator, which is usually set at about 37 degrees. Do you have an attached garage that isn’t heated and has one area that stays cold but doesn’t freeze? How about a cold cellar or a cold room in a basement (historically used for wintering certain food items – potatoes, apples, etc.? I’m in Minnesota, too, and our climate fortunately allows for such a room (usually a cement walled-room in one corner of an underground basement that is insulated from the heated part of your basement, if any, with a solid, tight door). Sometimes unfinished basements have areas that can fairly easily be converted to a small cold room (a cold “closet,” perhaps). You need to find a cold area (maybe under the stairs against the outside wall) and then insulate to keep that area cold – works best with a basement that is only minimally heated (e.g., a basement heated primarily to keep pipes from freezing).

    A general thought: if you’re using your primary refridgerator to force bulbs, make sure there are no apples in the fridge. They give off a gas that will undo your hard work and usually leave you with weak, flowerless plants. As a plant lover, I don’t think it’s a lot to ask to have one (bottom, at that!) shelf in the fridge for your forcing endeavor! The beauty of those blooms (and dollars saved from buying someone else’s forced blooms) seems well worth it! But I’d also encourage you to consider again a second fridge if you have a basement or attached garage that stays warm enough to make a garage fridge reasonable. You can often pick one up at a sale or on Craig’s List for $100 or less, and then you can force bulbs to your heart’s content! And, heck, if it’s in the garage, you can even store cold drinks in it in the summer! (Also, a nice size basket of of forced bulbs often costs $50 and up if you buy from a green house or perhaps grocery store floral section; that fridge will pay for itself in no time!)

    Because you’re also in MN, I can recommend a few other great places to go for information on forcing bulbs and to talk to those with a lot of experience and skill in forcing bulbs. And, you can even find places to enjoy abundant forced bulbs in the middle of a cold, winter day. Check out the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul. For $1, you can spend a few minutes or the day in a warm, sunny, green space; after the Christmas flower show is removed (think sea of pointsettias), the forced bulbs have their party in one wing. The heady scent of the freesia greets you when you walk into this section of the Conservatory, and staff are happy to share what they know. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen is another great source for information, as is the Minnesota/County Extension Service (look up number in phone book – usually under county information). With the latter, you can call and leave a question and a master gardener will call you back with the answer – free of charge. Oh … and in MN, if you’re really feeling the need for those large fields of color from forced bulbs, don’t miss the Home and Garden Show at the Mpls Convention Center or the downtown Macy’s top floor early spring garden show. Those in other areas may have similar resources available to them.

    I wish you great success – and happy forcing!

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