Bring spring indoors early — very early — by forcing bulbs

Ask the Expert Gardening
Forced daffodil bulbs in New York. Lee Reich via the Associated Press

Daffodils sitting on a windowsill against a backdrop of white snow make a fragrant and pretty midwinter scene. This picture, with bulbs “forced’’ for early bloom, takes planning that should start now.

Choose plump, fresh-looking bulbs from those now on display at garden centers, hardware stores, and supermarkets.

Prep the bulbs

Unless you buy pre-planted bulbs in pots, you have the choice of growing bulbs in water, pebbles, or soil. For growing in water, use special bulb glasses — pinched in with a neck to support a single bulb with its base in the water — or support the bulb in a drinking glass with three toothpicks stuck around its side.

Growing bulbs in pebbles is just like growing them in water except the pebbles support the bulb (and you don’t get entertained watching the roots grow).

In a flowerpot, plant bulbs shoulder to shoulder in potting soil with their tops level with the soil surface. Once planted, bulbs are ready for the first of four stages of forcing.

Four stages of growth

The first stage awakens the flower buds buried within the bulbs and allows for some root growth. Cool temperatures — about eight weeks’ worth — are needed to fool the flower buds into feeling that winter is over and it’s time to wake up. Provide those temperatures by plunging the containers into holes outdoors, then mulching with leaves or straw, or by putting containers into an unheated garage or room. No light is needed at this point.

Cold can keep bulbs waiting in Stage One until you are ready to move on. The goal in Stage Two is to slowly draw out the stems, and the way to do this is with a little warmth and a little light. The amount of light that peeks through the drainage hole of a flower pot or a paper cone inverted over your bulb container is about right. After a couple of weeks, depending on the temperature, the bulbs are ready for Stage Three.

In this third stage, we hasten growth along with the warmer temperatures and bright light of a sunny windowsill. A daily turn of the plants toward the light prevents lopsided growth. Be careful not to coax growth along so rapidly that the blossoms blast open and fall apart.

Ahhh, Step Four: beautiful, fragrant blossoms. We want to drag this step out the longest, so keep the bulbs where the light is bright, but out of direct sun. If the indoor temperature can be maintained on the cool side, and the air humid, these harbingers of spring provide delight for two weeks or more.

Flowers all winter

With good planning, you can have new pots full of blooms ready to open and waiting in the wings as old blooms fade. Or you could have mixtures of different bulbs, blooming at different times, filling each pot.

Any spring-flowering bulb can be forced indoors, although some are easier than others. Easiest of all are paperwhite daffodils. Native to year-round warm climates, they start growth and flower without any cool treatment at all, so they’re also the first to bloom.

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